This morning, while I was sitting in the kitchen groggily downing my first cup of coffee, Thing One wandered in and asked me--out of a clear blue sky--to remind him how to say "rotten turtle egg" in Mandarin.
I still remember the class vividly. Ding Laoshi (Teacher Ting), our Mandarin teacher, a survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and a somewhat dumpy and formal elderly lady, walked into the classroom, put her books down on her desk and informed us flatly--to our great surprise--that she was going to teach us to swear properly in Mandarin that day. I must have been a freshman or sophomore in high school at the time, and therefore would have been in my third or fourth year of studying the language. I guess she figured that part of her job was teaching us more colloquial speech as well; either that or she wanted us to recognize expletives aimed in our direction for what they were, Chinese being a highly figurative sort of language.
Case in point: the example above. The literal meaning notwithstanding, "wang ba dan" translates roughly to "son of a bitch." Interestingly, there are several other ways to say the same thing, all of which involve the word for dog ("gou"), which at least makes more sense. A lot of insults involve the word "gou," actually...my personal favorite is "gou pi," which translates as "bullshit" but literally means "dog fart."
Anyway, my first reaction this morning was to ask why he wanted this particular piece of information. I'm not aware of anyone he might encounter around here who would understand him if he used that particular epithet (especially since Mandarin is a tonal language and his pronunciation is abominable) but still...it's the principle of the thing. Once he assured me that it was just annoying him that he couldn't remember and that he had no intention of calling people names at school, I felt a lot better about answering the question. Even if it did make for a highly unusual start to the morning!