A few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with Garbo, one of the Chinese teachers at our school. I’m not quite sure how we got on the subject (we started by discussing students we both teach — yup, teachers do that!), but somehow, we got on the topic of multitasking. Garbo informed me, “We have a saying in China, ‘to shoot two eagles with one arrow.'” Later, when talking with another Chinese friend (and fellow teacher), Sapphire, I mentioned that idiom and said that in English, we often use the expression, “kill two birds with one stone.”
“Oh, actually, that is a better translation for our saying,” Sapphire told me. “Really, ours means ‘to use one stone to kill two birds.'”
It intrigued me that the East and the West can be so distant and so separated by culture, language, etc., yet we can have such similar idioms. One might also remark on the apparent rampant cruelty toward birds in both cultures!
Sapphire, her sister Shine, and I went back and forth at lunch one day, comparing and contrasting idioms (yes, teachers can be boring like that). I told them about the history behind our expression “mad as a hatter” (mercury was used in haberdashery back in the day; hence, hat-makers used to go crazy from mercury poisoning, and hence, the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s classic story). The French have a similar expression “he makes hats” which also means that someone is crazy. Though amused by the etymology lesson, Shine and Sapphire said that there is not a Chinese equivalent.
“Well, we do have the saying that someone’s reaction is as slow as a doll,” Sapphire recalled. “So that would be a way of calling someone foolish, then?” I asked. Sapphire nodded.
We next compared ways of saying that someone is beautiful. In English, courtesy of Homer’s epic, we have the phrase “a face that launched a thousand ships,” for describing a woman’s beauty. Sapphire thought for a moment, then said, “We can say, ‘so beautiful that a fish goes down.”
“Whaaaaat?” I asked. I gave her my best ‘extremely perplexed foreigner’ face (I wear that facial expression a lot some days).
“Well, the fish is ashamed to see so much beauty, so the fish goes deeper under the water,” Shine hastened to explain. “We can also say ‘so beautiful that a bird goes down’ — the bird is so overcome by her beauty that it can’t fly. Or we can say that someone’s beauty makes the moon hide or makes a flower hide. Same meaning.”
On another occasion, about a month ago, I told my friend Maggie (another Chinese friend/coworker) about how in America, people will often ask a child if he’s “digging to China” when he’s happily scooping out a hole at the beach. “So,” I asked, “when Chinese children play in the sand at the beach, do people say that they are digging to America?”
“Whaaaat?” Maggie asked. (See, cultural confusion goes both ways!)
*For those who were wondering, Dōng huò zhě Xī is Chinese pinyin for “East or West”