From a young age, I’ve always been interested in the shapes, sounds, and perspective-forming contextualities of language. Not to make myself sound like an obnoxious child sophisticate who, at age ten, spend afternoons sipping wine while reading Proust; rather, I’ve always been interested in language in a more practical, quotidian sense. How does our personal repertoire of words and phrases, our storage vault of daily-usage language, form how we think, act, and relate to others – as well as how we perceive and interact with our surrounding environment? How do our language-determined concepts – whether the nouns which form our ideas on ethics, morality, and value; the verbs which highlight our activities, priorities, and ways of life; or the adjectives and adverbs that describe the innate qualities of things and the characteristics upon which we place value (or not) – how do these concepts determine our daily connections (or misconnections) with the language-defyingly complex and chaotic world around us? How does a language limit or expand our worldview – and, by extension, how does learning another language develop our capacity to experience and attempt to understand the world in greater depth? Does learning a language bring us to the proverbial icy lip of nihilistic jadedness (I’ve clearly spent too much time in crevasses), or pull us deeper into the proverbial crevasse, a endlessly featured world of countless textures, gradations, and shades of gray? Does learning a language make the world more shallow, or a place of greater depth? Does it make us more able to observe and think and empathize and ultimately wonder at the overwhelmingly beautiful multiplicity that surrounds us?
And with such a ridiculously florid introduction, I’ll introduce my first of (as Jon Stewart would say) our ongoing segment: Chinese Phrase of the (Indeterminately Long Time Period Here). Chinese Phrase of the Week would be frequent enough that I’d be unable to commit; Phrase of the Month potentially too long; rather, this will be an intermittent feature of this blog. Which brings me to this (ILTPH)’s phrase:
(note: Real Chinese Speakers, please don’t crucify me for getting anything wrong)
This phrase, made up of doubled characters for “break” or “stop” (断 duan4) and “continue” 继 (xu4), is defined as “intermittent”, “off-and-on,” “discontinuous,” and – oddly – “work in snatches.” Due as much to its seemingly onomatopoeic sound as its meanings and connotations, duanduanxuxu has become one of my favorite phrases to use in daily Chinese. It can be applied to work and study (“His dedication to study is duanduanxuxu; sometimes he works hard, sometimes not”), relationships (“Their relationship is duanduanxuxu“), availability of products at the store (“Their selection is pretty duanduanxuxu; they sometimes have my hot sauce, but other times I have to go elsewhere…”), wolf/deer population dynamics (possibly…), glacial surge cycles (perhaps?), or really anything else that changes in a halting, randomly unpredictable, peak-and-valley-like manner.
But one of my favorite things about duanduanxuxu is that it carries the connotation of an awkwardly unvoiced half-disagreement, a half-hearted lack of personal investment, a vacillatorily incomplete motivation that results in something semi-complete, imperfect. Duanduanxuxu describes something that, ultimately, is unfinished and indeterminate – a Gertrude Stein-esque “No There There” state of limbo which – for me – in many ways perfectly describes the human condition. Before I get labeled a pessimist, however, let me explain that by describing humanity as duanduanxuxu (Chinese native speakers – bear with me), I mean something profoundly positive and life-affirming.
Human life and thought and sense of purpose is intermittent at best – and this is something admirable. We are not static or inflexible; instead, we are infinitely differentiable; we are adaptable and resourceful enough to adjust to changing emotions and environments to the point that we can continually reinvent ourselves as new individuals, randomly and intermittently focused people who, rather than being blindly and unwaveringly dedicated to one sense of self, are capable of reflection, of waffling and indecision and half-completion and confusion and drastic, cosmic messiness. Life, in contrast to the whitewashingly beautifying efforts of many current SF District Supervisors, is not just the pretty stuff: it remains a beautiful chaotic mess of possibility and doldrums and opportunity and confidencelessness and pretty much every other emotion possible, each taking precedence in rotation, an endlessly alternating motion, rise and fall, on and off, duanduanxuxu.
But hopefully not “work in snatches” – that sounds questionable at best. In the interest of maintaining this blog as an upstanding pillar of online discourse (yeah, right), I’ll stick with my perceived cosmic significance of the phrase – which I’ve now, if possessed of any ability to coerce through the written word, succeeded in enlarging sufficiently to frighten away any potential duanduanxuxu-users. But remember: as in any of my blog posts, half of the crap I’ve written above can’t possibly be true. So go ahead, worry-free, into your duanduanxuxu life – and remember to vacillate and be on-and-off and intermittent and work snatchingly at times: life is to short to push forward relentlessly, blinders in position, with overly-singleminded devotion, towards one goal. There’s always more out there – not even beyond the horizon, but just out the door – and you’re going to need to engage in some major duanduanxuxu-ing to get at it.