Sunday, April 06, 2008

What does this mean?

Note: all conversations were in mandarin

Sometime in the distant past, probably two years ago, I was reading a Chinese periodical on a tram somewhere in Melbourne when a fellow commuter remarked, “oh, is that the so-and-so journal?”

This so-and-so journal was The Reader, a monthly publication consisting of an assortment of light reading, letters to the editor, casual discussions on socio-economics or current affairs (but never politics) and some touching tales. Content wise, it is a Chinese equivalent of The Reader’s Digest- a large variety of articles presented in a format for light reading, perfect for mass appeal and large circulation numbers.

I told the commuter that it was indeed The Reader, and he mentioned that he likes reading this publication. He had been reading it since he was a young boy back in Guangdong.

“I find it to be very meaningful,” he told me.

I condescendingly thought he was a bit shallow. A haphazard collection of touching but generally pointless stories and surface-scratching articles is ‘meaningful’?


A new power generation plant will be coming up in Ghana, and the company will be designing a portion of the system.

I asked the project manager if she would be involved in the project, and she said probably yes. It will not be easy for whoever’s on site managing the thing. The people there are black people, and they would need to speak English (not Chinese). And Ghana is probably not as developed as Tianjin or Shanghai.

“But you wouldn’t be there for the entire duration of the project right?”
“No, of course not. It’ll be several short visits.”
“Then that should be fun, it’ll be something different.”
“Yes, it’ll be very meaningful.”


Friday being qing ming (the day when people pay their respects to ancestors and do some housekeeping on the burial plots and tombs), this is a three-day weekend.

Yesterday, as we drove past a road along the periphery of the large park near our office, we noted that it was unusually crowded. Apart from the long weekend, it also helped that the weather was a pleasant 17°C and spring’s eruptions of vivid green is still going on.

Along the walking paths in the park were families (always in groups of threes, due to the one-child policy) and lovers (always in groups of twos, due to the fact that generally accepted human relationships are one-to-one).

Someone pointed at a pair cuddling on a bench, “look at them, huddled together for all to see, don’t they have shame?”
Someone else replied, “and they are both males aren’t they?”
“No, one’s a female,” she suddenly got distracted by something else and shifted her attention (and finger) in another direction.

“Look, they are camping!” Someone had set up a tent among some peach trees. “How meaningful!”



It was at this moment when I realised my interpretation of the phrase ‘very meaningful’ had been erroneous.

My model of the phrase ‘very meaningful’ needs to be modified. There are two options:
- The Chinese application of ‘meaningful’ is less intense than in English – it can be used even in the most flippant of situations
- There is an alternate (perhaps informal) meaning of ‘meaningful’, perhaps similar in meaning to ‘interesting’ or ‘fascinating’

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