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Michelle Maisto



Reader, eater, thinker. Author of "The Gastronomy of Marriage." Mandarin-learning mama.

Babah (Or, And Then I Realized Something)

Bàbah (ba-BAH), dad • Goong Goong, your mother’s father/grandfather • Po Po, your mother’s mother/grandmother.

When Rich and I had been dating long enough that his parents became a regular part of my life, the tricky business arose of not knowing what to call them. Initially, I called them Mr. and Mrs. Chang—which wasn’t even quite right, though Dr. and Dr. was weirder. Later, sometime after we got engaged, or maybe early into our marriage, I started following Rich’s lead and calling his father Babah—dad, in Mandarin.

It was a pleasing development for me, and I remember explaining to people that this worked out perfectly, since there was no one I already called Babah, and so the word meant nothing to me. But I was still in a lurch as to what to call his mother, since he called her Mom and I already had one of those—it would have been too weird to call her that. If only there was a Chinese word for mother that he used! I’d complained to close friends.

(Ultimately, she told me to just call her Monica, and though this initially felt too informal, with some relief I began to.)

These days, Emerson calls Rich Babah and his father Goong goong (that actually also isn’t the correct name for him—it signifies the grandfather on the mother’s side; but that’s another story). So, now I also call him Goong Goong as well, and in the right context I call Monica Po Po.

Visiting with Rich’s parents last week, it occurred to me how weird it would feel to now call his father Babah,and remembered suddenly the first time I’d used the word to address him—the flash of smile and the look of amusement, or something else, in his eyes that had followed. After that initial reflex, though, he never responded awkwardly, or said or did anything to make me feel uncomfortable about it. He did nothing to make me feel that he was feeling the word.

It mortifies me now to think how lightly I’d used it. No personal emotion was attached, and so I’d treated it with according lightness, not considering the weight that others felt.

Today, of course, it means my spouse; it signifies my family. It means everything.

Rain, yŭ. Drizzle, máomao yŭ
The last time the three of us were out in a drizzle—the kind of light, messy rain you don’t realize is happening until you step out into it—Emerson, scrunched inside the increasingly too-small confines of the umbrella stroller (the ideal stroller for subway rides) frowned a little and then commented, “Máomao yŭ.”
I thought she was saying māo, cat, and I paused for a second, trying to figure out if she’d seen a cat, or was pretending to be a cat. Before I could follow down this cat path, though, Rich answered, “Duì de,”—you’re right—”máomao yŭ.”
That was day I learned that while yŭ means rain (a word very close to the word for shark—let’s hope I’m never near to some sharks while it’s raining and so robbed of any context clues) máomao yŭ is a light rain.
Tonight, though, eating pears at the kitchen table while reading books before bed time, I asked her, in English, whether it was raining on her way home from school.
“Máomao yŭ,” she said matter-of-factly. Finally, I thought to ask Rich if the words translated to something separately.
“Máo is fur,” he said, seeming to consider the weirdness of that, but then—his expression changing—realizing its perfection. What more visceral a descriptor for the kind of muffled, misting rain one more experiences and endures (than can hold an umbrella to) than “fur rain.”
Looking it up tonight, I also fell a little in love with the written symbol for rain, which (in the noun form) looks like drops falling outside a window.

ps: Let us not overlook the adorableness (and literalness) of the word for cat being essentially the sound a cat makes. Māo! 

Rain, yŭ. Drizzle, máomao yŭ

The last time the three of us were out in a drizzle—the kind of light, messy rain you don’t realize is happening until you step out into it—Emerson, scrunched inside the increasingly too-small confines of the umbrella stroller (the ideal stroller for subway rides) frowned a little and then commented, “Máomao yŭ.”

I thought she was saying māo, cat, and I paused for a second, trying to figure out if she’d seen a cat, or was pretending to be a cat. Before I could follow down this cat path, though, Rich answered, “Duì de,”—you’re right—”máomao yŭ.”

That was day I learned that while yŭ means rain (a word very close to the word for shark—let’s hope I’m never near to some sharks while it’s raining and so robbed of any context clues) máomao yŭ is a light rain.

Tonight, though, eating pears at the kitchen table while reading books before bed time, I asked her, in English, whether it was raining on her way home from school.

Máomao yŭ,” she said matter-of-factly. Finally, I thought to ask Rich if the words translated to something separately.

Máo is fur,” he said, seeming to consider the weirdness of that, but then—his expression changing—realizing its perfection. What more visceral a descriptor for the kind of muffled, misting rain one more experiences and endures (than can hold an umbrella to) than “fur rain.”

Looking it up tonight, I also fell a little in love with the written symbol for rain, which (in the noun form) looks like drops falling outside a window.

ps: Let us not overlook the adorableness (and literalness) of the word for cat being essentially the sound a cat makes. Māo

foodandwine:

Introducing Food & Wine Chefs-in-Residence. In honor of our 2014 redesign, we enlisted star chefs Grant Achatz (above), Mario Batali, Eric Ripert, David Chang, Andrew Zimmern and Hugh Acheson to consult on monthly features, recipes and travel tips. They have brilliant ideas, but don’t always make great office mates. For full videos visit Youtube.com/foodandwine.

foodandwine:

Introducing Food & Wine Chefs-in-Residence. In honor of our 2014 redesign, we enlisted star chefs Grant Achatz (above), Mario Batali, Eric Ripert, David Chang, Andrew Zimmern and Hugh Acheson to consult on monthly features, recipes and travel tips. They have brilliant ideas, but don’t always make great office mates. For full videos visit Youtube.com/foodandwine.

We’ve been calling Emmy xiao bao bei—little treasure, little darling—since she was born, so this song makes me endlessly happy. But I also like it because it’s maybe the sweetest that Mandarin has ever sounded in my ear.

I was talking to someone recently who shared a conversation she’d just had in which the woman had imitated how ridiculous and abrasive English had sounded to her when she first came to the United States. The sound was wonderfully awful. I’ve definitely heard people speaking a language my ears can make nothing of and thought, It is not possible that these people aren’t just repeating two words. This woman’s impression was just as unflattering and reductive. And a good reminder.

It would be easy to here suggest that with patience and willingness we come to hear each other better, literally and figuratively, which is true. But there are still other factors contributing to the task. A linguist friend acknowledged that our reactions to languages aren’t just about familiarity, but that things like an even pattern of vowels and consonants can make a language (like Japanese) sound pleasing to more people than a language with more stacked-together consonants. 

Still, surely in any language, a great voice does a lot of the heavy lifting. 

Since well before she turned 2, Emerson has been wanting a jiăotàchē (ja-dat-sah). But when we brought her to the jiăotàchē diàn (bicycle store), her feet didn’t quite reach the pedals. We bought her a scooter instead and assumed she’d give up on the idea, but weeks ahead of her third birthday she began telling us, “I’m getting a jiăotàchē for my birthday, a red one!”

And so she did.

And that’s when I learned that what she wanted, precisely, wasn’t a jiăotàchē but a sānlúnchē—tricycle.

In this case, the translation is identical to English. Sān is three, lún is wheel, chē is bike.

It’s lightning bug season! And oh, to hold on forever to the serious face my toddler makes, staring intently into the dusky shadows beneath the sagging branches of the neighbor’s mulberry tree. “There!” she shrieks, and then goes silent again, so serious in her task of alerting us to every flicker. “There!”
Yínghuǒchóng (the ch- is more like t) lightning bug.

It’s lightning bug season! And oh, to hold on forever to the serious face my toddler makes, staring intently into the dusky shadows beneath the sagging branches of the neighbor’s mulberry tree. “There!” she shrieks, and then goes silent again, so serious in her task of alerting us to every flicker. “There!”

Yínghuǒchóng (the ch- is more like t) lightning bug.

"The table would be set with watermelon pickles and canned meats, apples and jelly doughnuts and shoestring potatoes, a block of pre-sliced cheese, a bottle of milk, a bottle of catsup, and raisin bread in a stack. Sylvie liked cold food, sardines aswim in oil, little fruit pies in paper envelopes. She ate with her fingers and talked to us softly about people she had known, her friends, while we swung our legs and ate buttered bread."
Marilynne Robinson, “Housekeeping.” (Still enjoying the coverless paperback I picked out of a box of throwaways on the UCSD campus in 1997, considering a graduate degree in anthropology.)

Gluten: Drop It Like It’s Hot

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We’ve decided to go gluten-free for April, to see if it helps Rich’s horrendous spring allergies, his stormy digestive system and Emerson’s and my eczema. My first nod to this decision, optimistically anticipating Monday morning break leftovers, was the pizza di ricotta, or Easter ricotta pie, I baked last night for today’s lunch.

I’ve written about wanting Emmy to associate this pie with Easter and spring time, at the very least—language has been a tremendous component of her Chinese heritage; food is nearly the only way I know how to try and make her Italian side meaningful to her. I wanted to bake it with her, but wound up short on time and baking it after she went to sleep, hanging out alone past midnight waiting for it to cool. 

This year I used this Mario Batali recipe, but with one less egg in the batter, butter in the crust instead of shortening and gluten-free flour. I also left out the candied fruit but sprinkled chopped chocolate on the crust—fearing it would taste beany from the g/f flour, which smelled beany—before pouring the batter in. I also skipped the lattice crust, for fear of unavoidable beanyness. Though I needn’t have worried.  

Now, to take on April and assemble an arsenal of g/f-vegetarian dinner ideas. Suggestions (and take-out menus) welcome. 

Still Life With Rhino

A glance into Emerson’s jewelry box last week revealed the Jolly Rancher–like ring Rich once slipped onto my finger while I was sleeping, back in our very first apartment; a Matchbox car from her 2nd birthday party goodie bag; a rhino; a fork; and a brown ballerina.

The jewelry box came with brown and white ballerina options. When I half joked to the woman at the Pottery Barn that we were waiting for the Asian option, she smiled tightly.

 

Christine Castro, lady of the house over at Darling Studio and a dear and supremely talented friend, recently posted an email “conversation” we had on her beautiful Brunch blog. I’m still smiling about the experience—and her question about which five people, living or dead, I would like to invite to brunch. 
Who would you invite?
She also posted a pancake recipe I wrote up, and here’s where I get on my soapbox and advise: If you have time to make pancakes from a box, you have time to make pancakes from scratch. Seriously. You can have a batter together in 10 minutes (less if you skip my buttermilk substitution advice—and don’t let a toddler help you scoop the flour). You can even do yourself the time-saving favor of measuring out the dry ingredients and putting them in a container or ziplock in your pantry, all ready for when you need them.  
Like Christine, pancakes are a Good Thing. 

Christine Castro, lady of the house over at Darling Studio and a dear and supremely talented friend, recently posted an email “conversation” we had on her beautiful Brunch blog. I’m still smiling about the experience—and her question about which five people, living or dead, I would like to invite to brunch. 

Who would you invite?

She also posted a pancake recipe I wrote up, and here’s where I get on my soapbox and advise: If you have time to make pancakes from a box, you have time to make pancakes from scratch. Seriously. You can have a batter together in 10 minutes (less if you skip my buttermilk substitution advice—and don’t let a toddler help you scoop the flour). You can even do yourself the time-saving favor of measuring out the dry ingredients and putting them in a container or ziplock in your pantry, all ready for when you need them.  

Like Christine, pancakes are a Good Thing. 

The Impact of ‘Futureless’ Languages

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Behavorial economist Keith Chen has found that speakers of “futureless” languages—languages like Mandarin, in which one doesn’t say “yesterday it rained, today it’s raining, tomorrow it will rain,” but instead, “yesterday it rain, today it rain, tomorrow it rain”—exhibit markedly different behaviors.

They tend to see the future, Chen explains in this TED talk, as an extension of the present, instead of something far off, and so engage in behaviors in which there’s up-front “pain” for a later reward. (Smoking is an example of the reverse—an immediate reward for later pain.) Not only are they much less likely to smoke but they’re generally much better savers.

Specifically, Chen’s data found that between families that were identical in a long list of ways, except that one family spoke a futureless language and the other didn’t (for example, two families in Brussels, one of which speaks Flemmish and the other French), the family that spoke the futureless language was 30 percent more like to save in a year and to retire with 25 percent more in savings. 

"While the data I analyze don’t allow me to completely understand what role language plays in these relationships, they suggest that there is something really remarkable to be explained about the interaction of language and economic decision-making," Chen said in his TED bio.

"These correlations are so strong and survive such an aggressive set of controls, that the chances they arise by random lies somewhere between one in 10,000 and one in 10 [to the 32nd power]."

You Don’t Say

"Nice yifu, mama,” Emmy said to me approvingly the other morning, stroking my pajama top and finding it surprisingly soft. “Nice yifu…”

Yifu is clothes, and while she might have said shuiyi—pajamas—my first thought was to be pleased that she’d grabbed for a Mandarin word at all. 

But then I realized she’d used one of each and it started me wondering—is that the result of learning two languages? Or, more likely, the result of regularly listening to me stuff a single Mandarin word into an otherwise English-language sentence? I think I’m messing her up, which means it’s time to step up—I need to be better about constructing and using whole sentences. 

"Hao kan de yifu!" (Good looking, your clothes!) isn’t perfect, but it would be a step. For both of us. 

(Elmo, as he’s wearing his high heels here, clearly, might be told, “Hao kan de xiezi!) 

Highly recommended: Having an accountant with an office near Chinatown, so that you can balance the horror of taxes with the delights of a warm egg custard. Emerson now asks for two Chinese desserts by name. Dan tan (dan means egg) and doufu hua. Both of which, I realize now, I wrote about in “The Gastronomy of Marriage.” She is her mother’s daughter.

Highly recommended: Having an accountant with an office near Chinatown, so that you can balance the horror of taxes with the delights of a warm egg custard. Emerson now asks for two Chinese desserts by name. Dan tan (dan means egg) and doufu hua. Both of which, I realize now, I wrote about in “The Gastronomy of Marriage.” She is her mother’s daughter.

Asian Mathletes

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"The fish is the last to notice the water," the proverb goes, and it seems my endless pestering, regarding how to say words in Mandarin and what they mean, has caused Rich to give the water, as it were, a bit more thought.

A few years ago, we decided he’d solved the question (slash borderline racist generalization) of why Chinese people are good at math by realizing that Chinese math has so many fewer words to slow a person down. There’s no “2 plus 2 equals 4,” but just “2, 2, 4” and you’re on your way.

(You can roll your eyes at dropping those two words, but give 20 second graders a 100-question, 10-minute test and see if the Chinese kid doesn’t finish 8 minutes ahead of everyone else. It’s the effect of eliminating those two words, not the words themselves.)

But more recently, at a point when my counting skills had maxed out at 10 but Emmy was ready to take on more, Rich offered an even better argument. He explained that there’s no eleven, twelve, thirteen, but ten-one, ten-two, ten-three. In Mandarin, learning to count is learning to add.

Surely that must make the relationship between numbers more deeply intuitive—lodge it into the brain folds where we store the information we understand intuitively, emotionally.

Mandarin speakers (is Cantonese the same? are other Asian languages?) also get a math tutorial from the months.  

"Month" is yuè, so January onward is the equivalent of 1-month, 2-month-, 3-month. If my kid was born in August (8-month) and yours was in June (6-month), there’s not even a second of thinking about their age difference. Abstract ideas are made into numbers and the relationships between them are obvious.

The days of the week work similarly—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday are xīng qī yī, xīng qī èr, xīng qī sān: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.

Until you get to Sunday, which for some reason doesn’t play along. Instead of Day 7—xīng qī qī—it’s xīng qī rì.

"Why does it do that? What does it mean, if not Day 7?"I asked, irritated by the inconsistency. 

Rich shrugged. “I don’t know. It means … Sunday.”

ps: When I look at this art piece it instantly says to me: Fish. It’s one of my favorites, from a growing body of work by the young artist who in these parts refers to herself as “E-M-Y! Two m’s!”