Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Chinese Valentine’s pod

Hundreds of language programs at public schools have become victims of shrinking budgets. Not Chinese. We visit Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, NY,  where 400 students are learning the language.

Many of the students at the school are immigrants, but only a handful are ethnic Chinese. This is one of the many counterintuitive aspects to this story. Another is that 90% of students come from poor families — poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches. So, forget any preconceived notions about only white and Chinese-heritage students learning Chinese: Chinese-learning appears to be going viral. But will it last? There’s a nice debate on that question here. The Asia Society is trying to make the current interest in Chinese more than just a passing fad.  Together with a partner in China, it has begun handing out grants to American public schools, including Medgar Evers. As well beefing up the curricula, the idea is to get the American schools networked with each other, and with schools in China.

Then, there’s our nod to Valentine’s Day.  Don’t be fooled: the language of love is not universal, not unless you keep you mouth shut. The moment you open it, you get into trouble, especially if your lover speaks a different tongue.  American writer Jen Percy knows this. She’s been dating a German-speaking Bosnian for three years.Percy endlessly misunderstands the amorous words of her lover and writes amusingly and touchingly about it.  I did two takes on my conversation with Percy: one, a straight one-on-one interview; the other a full production number with foreign love songs that I hope is not too much of a This American Life copycat.

Finally we bodice-rip our way out of the recession with romance novels that are more popular than ever. We hear from writer Suzanne Brockmann who’s having a a vintage year all over the world.

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Obama’s new words, Avatar in the Amazon, and a Chinese satirical extravaganza

As Barack Obama enters the second year of his presidency, he’s dropped some expressions — among them, war on terror, associated of course mainly with George W. Bush and AfPak, a conflation of Afghanstan and Pakistan, which didn’t go down too well in Pakistan. In his State of Union speech, Obama didn’t even mention the Middle East. His administration has invented a few phrases too: remotely piloted aircraft (drones) and overseas contingency operations (wars).  Also, a count of his favorite State of the Union words done by The Guardian kicks up some surprises:  Obama really likes the word I. Other presidents liked America (George W. Bush), government (Ronald Reagan. I don’t think he was being complimentary) and new (Lyndon Johnson).

Next, it’s to Quito, Ecuador, and a special screening of Avatar.

The 3-D screening was for a couple of Ecuador’s indigenous groups, the Shuar and the Achuar. Both are struggling to maintain control of their land in the face of attempts to exploit it by Ecuadorean and multinational corporations. Avatar, of course, is about much the same thing, albeit with a future setting on a far-away planet inhabited by tall blue creatures who speak a language called Na’vi.  (See my previous post on Na’vi, the new Klingon.) We have a report on the screening, and some language-related comments from Alejandro Mayaprua, an Achuar leader,  and Mayra Vega, president of the Women’s Association of the Shuar Nation of Ecuador. That’s them below. Also, check out this video on the screening from reporter Melaina Spitzer.


After that, there’s a piece from Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad on a new online satirical movie that’s all the rage in China. It features a Chinese double-entendre phrase aimed at avoiding government censorship (it didn’t avoid censorship; it was eventually banned).  People became aware of the expression here in the U.S. after the New York Times ran a story on it. The movie also includes a fantastic “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” rant, which you can hear in all its glory in the pod.  Or you can watch a version of the movie with English subtitles here.

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