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Anthology 42 (Excerpts Part 2)
The number 42 in my anthology’s title comes from one of my favorite science fiction books: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams. Forty-two is revealed as the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.”3 The intrigue is created by the fact that no one knows what the question is. Hence the number 42 in my title. I do not yet know my life’s questions, but reading these stories, idioms, and proverbs is my first step in figuring them out. As I designed the book cover, I found it interesting that the number 42 somewhat resembles the Chinese word 忆, which means remembrance.
Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché, Tenait en son bec un fromage.
Maître Renard, par l’odeur alléché, Lui tint à peu près ce langage:
Et bonjour, Monsieur du Corbeau.
Que vous êtes joli ! que vous me semblez beau! Sans mentir, si votre ramage
Se rapporte à votre plumage,
Vous êtes le Phénix des hôtes de ces bois.
À ces mots, le Corbeau ne se sent pas de joie; Et pour montrer sa belle voix,
Il ouvre un large bec, laisse tomber sa proie.
Le Renard s’en saisit, et dit: Mon bon Monsieur, Apprenez que tout flatteur
Vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute.
Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute. Le Corbeau honteux et confus
Jura, mais un peu tard, qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus.
The Crow and the Fox
Original by Jean de La Fontaine
The Crow perched on the trees, Her beak bore a piece of cheese.
Enticed by the delicious aroma, the Fox below Walked over to talk to the Crow:
“Good morning, you look handsome and stunning! How your feathers are bright and shining!
You must be the phoenix of these woods. If only you could try to sing,
And show me your voice matches the beauty of your wing!” Flattered, the Crow decided to sing once and for all.
As she opened her beak, her treasure started to fall The piece of cheese fell straight to the Fox, waiting.
“Thank you, Crow,” said the Fox, who was still salivating, “Flatterers live at the cost of the vain who heed.
This lesson is well worth the cheese indeed.” The Crow, shamed and sick,
Swore, a bit late, he’d never fall for this trick.
My Reflections and Interpretations: How to Pull a “Crow and Fox”?
In fables like this one, foxes are usually metaphors for antagonists. In a way, it seems they are often discriminated against and stereotyped. This fable is no different, with the fox’s cunning actions serving to warn us against trusting flatterers who want to take advantage of our vanity. This is an important lesson, especially in online worlds where predators are everywhere in disguise and ready to exploit our weaknesses.
There is no doubt the fox’s intention to trick and benefit from empty flattery is dishonorable and lacks integrity. At the same time, after exercising a bit of critical thinking and looking at this story from multiple angles without writing the fox off immediately, I feel that because in today’s world nuanced communication is so vital, his knowing when to say what to whom, and how, could be a communication skill we can learn a bit from.
My mother has one unbreakable rule: no dating until college. I’ve been trying to work around it since the sixth grade, but no matter how much I complain or cajole with fake tears or exaggerated rage, the answer is no. Then, one day, I stumbled across the bestseller Never Split the Difference at an airport bookstore. Skimming through the chapters of this book written by an ex-FBI negotiator, I was intrigued as some of them, such as “Look for the No,” “Mirror,” and “Label,” seemed counterintuitive. I bought the book out of curiosity, and it was fascinating. Eventually, I seized my opportunity when my mother and I were having a Sunday brunch.
I began, “Can I go out on a date?”
“No,” she replied, giving me exactly what I needed. “Tomorrow?” I anchored.
She laughed, “Nineteen.” “Nineteen?” I mirrored.
“Yes. At that point, you would be in college and not worrying about SATs and applications.”
Now was the opportunity for a label, one that defined my mother’s thoughts. Not a flattering comment, but an honest acknowledgment of her feelings. “You’re worried about my future. That’s appreciated, but I finish my applications first semester of my senior year. After that, dating will not change the results as long as I keep up my grades.”
“Fair point. As long as you keep up your grades,” said Mom with a nod and a smile.
Empathetic, skillful, and thoughtful use of language in our communications can go a long way when resolving conflicts, developing mutual understanding, and achieving harmony and win-win successes in family and in life. After all, a few minutes of strategic conversation got me a six- month discount on when I can have my first date.
La cigale, ayant chanté Tout l’été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue Quand la bise fut venue. Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau. Elle alla crier famine
Chez la fourmi sa voisine, La priant de lui prêter Quelque grain pour subsister Jusqu’à la saison nouvelle.
«Je vous paierai, lui dit-elle, Avant l’août, foi d’animal, Intérêt et principal.»
La fourmi n’est pas prêteuse; C’est là son moindre défaut.
«Que faisiez-vous au temps chaud? Dit-elle à cette emprunteuse.
—Nuit et jour à tout venant Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.
—Vous chantiez? j’en suis fort aise. Eh bien! dansez maintenant.»
The Cicada and the Ant
Original by Jean de La Fontaine
The Cicada, having sung all summer, Found himself very much in hunger.
His stomach bellowed as the North Wind blew With neither maggot nor worm to chew.
So he went pleading to his neighbor the Ant, Begging the Ant to loan him some grain; Just enough until the new spring rain.
To the Ant, he said, “Please trust a fellow animal. I’ll pay you in haste—both interest and principal.” But Miss Ant disliked the idea of lending,
Which is the least of her misbehaving.
So she asked, “Tell me: How did you spend your entire summer?”
“Me? I sang day and night, in every forest corner!” “You sang? That is very good news.
Well, now dance, and I’ll pay you if you can amuse.”
My Reflections and Interpretations: A Cicada, an Ant, or a Cicad-Ant?
I can’t help but wonder: is it better to be the cicada, or is the ant to be favored? If it were solely up to me, would I follow the footsteps of LeBron James, spending a lifetime playing the sport I love—while, of course, making sufficient money? Or is it perhaps better to be like Joe Tsai from Alibaba, working hard before retiring with enough money to buy the Brooklyn Nets? He gets to sit court-side whenever he so desires, and that is a pretty good deal if you ask me.
I am putting a French fable and a Chinese story together as they have similar morals:
Two Stories: L’Ane et le petit Chien &
am putting a French fable and a Chinese story together as they have similar morals:
L’Ane et le petit Chien
By Jean de La Fontaine16
Ne forçons point notre talent, Nous ne ferions rien avec grâce:
Jamais un lourdaud, quoi qu’il fasse, Ne saurait passer pour galant.
Peu de gens, que le Ciel chérit et gratifie, Ont le don d’agréer infus avec la vie.
C’est un point qu’il leur faut laisser,
Et ne pas ressembler à l’Ane de la Fable, Qui pour se rendre plus aimable
Et plus cher à son maître, alla le caresser. “Comment? disait-il en son âme,
Ce Chien, parce qu’il est mignon,
Vivra de pair à compagnon Avec Monsieur, avec Madame; Et j’aurai des coups de bâton? Que fait-il? il donne la patte; Puis aussitôt il est baisé:
S’il en faut faire autant afin que l’on me flatte, Cela n’est pas bien malaisé.”
Dans cette admirable pensée,
Voyant son Maître en joie, il s’en vient lourdement, Lève une corne toute usée,
La lui porte au menton fort amoureusement,
Non sans accompagner, pour plus grand ornement, De son chant gracieux cette action hardie.
“Oh! oh! quelle caresse! et quelle mélodie! Dit le Maître aussitôt. Holà, Martin bâton! “ Martin bâton accourt; l’Ane change de ton. Ainsi finit la comédie.
The Donkey and the Lapdog
Original by Jean de La Fontaine
Our talent we should not force unnaturally
Or else we would never achieve success gracefully. A clown can win in a witty race
But he will never fill a gentleman’s place. Heavens bless no one but a few
With power to please and to life infuse.
Without the gift to get past this,
You will hear the ass’s excruciating hiss,
Even though this donkey just wanted his master’s blessing By jumping onto him to do some caressing.
“What!” said the donkey in his mind, “Why should it be the puppy’s kind Living such a useless but comfortable life With the master and his wife
In his constant companionship
While I get nothing but the cruel whip? He gives his paw and he gets a kiss
I can easily do the same and share his bliss!”
With such a clever thought in mind
He was excited to leave his old life behind.
Seeing his master in a happy mood, he went up to him awkwardly
To stroke the master’s chin with his hoof lovingly.
Oh, such a gentle touch was there ever?
Or more wonderful a melody that anyone could deliver? To add extra love and grace
He brayed to his master’s face.
“Ho! Martin, my herder! A stick to me bring!”
The master cried out loud and got ready to give a good beating.
This did not work out as the donkey intended And this comedic fable tragically ended.
Learning the Handan Walk
The origin of the story behind the Chinese idiom: Zhuangzi (around 369 BC–286 BC), who is considered by many to be the most significant of China’s early founders of Daoism.
Context: Handan was the capital of the State of Zhao during the Warring States period in Chinese history. At that time, there were a total of seven warring states, including the State of Yan.
Once there was an ambitious young man
Who heard Zhao was more powerful than his state Yan. He was intrigued so he traveled to Zhao’s capital Handan. There, he saw Handan’s prosperity and became a true fan. He found the walk of the Handan people truly divine
And said to himself, “I shall make that sophistication mine!” Watching children walking with a playful pace, he imitated; Then, seeing old people with a respectful trot, he emulated; Observing ladies with a graceful stroll, he mimicked.
Just like that, a few months passed and his savings finished, Not only did he fail to lessen his Handan rage,
He has also lost his own heritage.
Having totally forgotten how to properly stride,
He had to crawl back to Yan without any pride.
My Reflections and Interpretations: Designing and Redefining
To me, there is nothing wrong with the donkey aspiring to be treated like a pet dog, or with the young man wanting to become more sophisticated. I think the problem lies in how they pursued their goals.
I tried to analyze what went wrong through the lens of Design Thinking, which I learned in the online class Stanford e-China. Design Thinking includes five key steps: empathize to understand user needs; define the problem; ideate to generate possible solutions; quickly prototype the solution; and test the prototype for feedback. These steps are not linear and work in more of an iterative cycle.
Analyzing through this framework, I think the donkey’s issue is that he does not start with a thorough understanding of the owner’s needs, such as how he needs farm animals for productivity. Instead, he jumps to the conclusion that all the family needs is to be touched by an animal’s paw, and so leaps straight to the solution, which, obviously, fails miserably and leaves little room for adjustment.
As for the Yan man trying to learn the Handan walk, he needs to learn to be sophisticated like the Handan people. However, he does not really define his own problem. If sophistication or prosperity is the end goal, would learning the Handan walk be the solution? What exactly is the “Handan walk” if the children, elderly people, and women he sees all walk so differently? Additionally, he never demonstrates any consistency, switching his solution every time he sees something new.
If the donkey or the Yan man had followed Design Thinking, their stories and their lives could have been redefined. The donkey might have ended up as the favorite animal, and the Yan man could have become more sophisticated or even a key role model for the state of Yan.
On Chinese New Year, 2020, I was preparing for a brief transit in Dubai on my way home from a family trip/ language immersion experience in Spain. But on the day before our departure, we received the text message that all flights to China were canceled due to COVID-19. It wasn’t easy to get an accommodation at a reasonable price in Barcelona. Fortunately, we found an inexpensive hotel in Dubai, so we decided to fly there and wait until we could go
As we walked to the immigration desk in Dubai, I found myself fascinated by the Arabic language all around me. The symbols looked cool, and I could not make any sense of them with the Germanic, Romance, and pictographic languages I knew. We had nothing planned for Dubai, so I spent my first day there hunting for a crash-course, beginner Arabic book to start my journey of deciphering the metabolites of these mysterious symbols. The bookstore at the Dubai Mall was crammed with shelves, nooks, and crannies of volumes reaching out to passersby in a cry for attention.
I browsed for what my parents would describe as an eternity, unable to decide which beginner’s guide to Arabic to pick. I did not want to pick the wrong one, as they were pricey, and our budget was stretched due to the extra stay in Dubai. I must have been looking frustrated because a tall, young, coffee-haired man standing across from me suddenly held out a book and said in Chinese: “This one.” I
was simultaneously thankful and surprised at his ease with Mandarin, and we struck up a brief conversation.
He revealed that he is a model and an aspiring actor from Iran who loves languages. He already spoke English, Arabic, Spanish, French, and Italian fluently and was perusing for a guide to beginner’s Chinese. We ended up holding a ten- minute conversation, jumping between English, Spanish, and French. I had a blast listening to this charismatic polyglot, especially as he explained his reason for learning languages: the need to be respected for more than his good looks. I laughed self-deprecatingly and said that was my reason, too. We parted ways at the bookstore door, making a pact to improve in our next language endeavor and meet up to converse again in Dubai or Shanghai.
As my Arabic is elementary, mostly self-taught online, I can only translate simple idioms and proverbs. However, I truly believe that, like stories, idioms and proverbs from around the world are replete with wisdom and food for thought. Often with their laser-sharp metaphors and motifs, idioms and proverbs are succinct and powerful in imparting wisdom and provoking us to make connections with the stories we have lived through ourselves. So here are five of the Arabic idioms and proverbs that resonated with me most deeply. Just like with the Cantonese part of this book, I will share stories that I can’t help connecting these idioms and proverbs with.
Pronunciation in English phonics (roughly): [albahsa batisnid khabia]
Literal translation: A pebble can support a barrel.
Explanation: Even a small effort can make a big difference.
My Story: Ask the Starfish
I used to volunteer at my church, selling jewelry for the Starfish Project.The project is a social enterprise that provides care for women who have escaped human trafficking and exploitation in Asia by finding employment for them through jewelry making.19 I remember asking why this initiative was called Starfish, and I got my answer in a story:
A tourist was walking along a beach when he spotted a boy crouched by the water, scooping something up from the sand and then throwing whatever he dug up into the sea. He saw the boy move a little down the beach and repeat the same action over and over again—scoop, throw, and move.
He watched for a long time until the boy finally took a break. Approaching him in a friendly manner, the tourist asked, “Young man, what are you so busy doing?”
“I am saving these starfish washed up by the waves,” replied the boy. “If they remain on the sand, they will dry out and die, so I am throwing them back to the sea.”
The tourist was silent for a few seconds. “Young man,” he finally said, “there must be hundreds of stranded starfish on this stretch alone! And there will be more washed up tomorrow. What difference does this make? You are wasting your time. Go home and study instead.”
Picking up another starfish, the boy left the tourist speechless by responding, “Maybe we can ask this starfish if I am making a difference?”
The starfish kept me motivated and moving during the twenty-four months of writing and editing this anthology. Many times, I asked myself: Why continue? What difference will it make? Recognizing valuable or insightful stories from multiple languages will take so much time to aggregate, translate, and comment upon in ways my generation might not appreciate. But then, the wisdom of this very anthology would help me refocus by thinking back to this tale and reminding myself: One stor(y)fish at a time.
Pronunciation in English phonics (roughly): [auwalu alghadabi Jununun wa akhiruhu nadamun]
Literal translation and explanation: Anger begins with madness, and ends with regret.
My Story: Mend the Fence May Not Equal Fence Mended.
I experienced a strong sense of déjà-vu when introduced to this Arabic proverb, as its moral mirrors that of a story I learned in Sunday school many years ago. At that time, our family had just moved to Beijing, and we were trying to fix up fences for our house the night before this particular Sunday school session. The story goes like this:
Once upon a time, there was a boy with a bad temper. One day, his father decided to give him a bag of blunt nails and a small hammer. “Son, every time you lose your temper, you have to hammer a nail into the fence.”
On the very first day, the boy hammered tens of nails into the fence. But because the nails were blunt and the hammer was small, his hand hurt afterward. It got more painful in the following days as he hammered more and more nails into the fence. Realizing it was easier to control his temper than to hammer nails, the boy gradually became less hotheaded, and, thus, the number of nails he had to hammer each day decreased.
Eventually, the boy stopped losing his temper at all. He was so happy and proud that he ran to tell his father the news. The father congratulated him but tasked him something else: to pull out a nail each day from the fence to remind himself of this breakthrough.
Days passed, and one day the boy finally pulled out the last nail. That afternoon, the father took the boy lovingly by the hand and brought him to see the fence.
“I am proud of your change, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say or do things in anger, it leaves a scar in others. When you hurt others with angry words or actions, no matter how many times you apologize or how sorry you feel afterward, the wound will still be there.”
Now, turning seventeen soon, the moral is obvious to me. But I remember that when the teacher who told the story asked us for comments, six-year-old me asked, “Will Mom lose her temper if Dad lets me hammer nails into her new fence?”
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