Okay, it’s been over a month since my last post. That’s embarrassing. I’d say it won’t happen again, but there’s a good chance I’d be lying, and I don’t believe in telling lies or truths on the internet. You’ve got to strike a delicate, unwholesome balance, that’s neither so true nor so false that it incurs the love and wrath of trolls, stalkers, lawyers, and other mythical beasts.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been spending a lot of time on Buzzfeed.

But going back to the important issue of noodles, I just had a very interesting conversation with my Chinese coworker. We go out for lunch together almost every day, and every day at around 12:30 we ask each other the dreaded question: what should we eat? Neither of us is particularly picky. We both love food, especially cheap food, and we are happy to eat almost anything. Nevertheless, we do occasionally run into disagreements. My coworker would be content to eat duck blood soup every day, which I prefer to reserve for special occasions only (my limit is probably once a month). I, meanwhile, enjoy the process of wandering around outside and finding somewhere new to try, but my coworker sees this as a waste of time and often money. Over time, we have built up an arsenal of go-to restaurants to choose from: takeout sushi, wontons, cafeteria-style basics, Korean hot pot, and many, many noodle shops.

Today, when the dreaded 12:30 question came up, I suggested a little noodle restaurant we had tried for the first time last week.

My coworker looked at me blankly.

“You know,” I tried to explain, “that non-spicy one, right near the curry place that closed.”

She narrowed her eyes in that good lord what are you talking about way: “Those were fensi!”

Too late, I realized my mistake.

In English, we lump every long, doughy, stringy, pasta-like thing under the umbrella term “noodles.” Not so in Chinese. The word I had used to describe the food served at this restaurant was 面条miantiao, which specifically means “wheat noodles.” The food that had actually been served was 粉丝fensi, which are cellophane noodles made from mung beans or other starchy vegetables. These should not be confused with 米线mixian (rice vermicelli), 米粉mifen (thicker rice noodles), and 年糕niangao (short strips or pieces of glutinous rice, often served in hot pot). To my coworker, calling fensimian” was akin to calling tangerines “apples,” just because they’re both round.

It is always fascinating to me how different languages take the smooth, continuous spectrum of the world and break it up into different-sized pieces.

Take colors, for instance. A few languages, mostly in isolated corners of the world, only have separate words for black and white.Russianhas two totally different words for the light and dark versions of the color we call “blue.” In Chinese, the basic color demarcations match English pretty closely, with a few exceptions. In addition to separate words for green and blue, there is also a word青 (qing) that means both. In modern Chinese this is only used in set expressions and compound words, such as 青天qingtian (blue sky) and 青菜qingcai (green vegetables).

I have also noticed something unusual about colors in everyday speech. Although various Chinese words exist for the colors orange, brown, pink, and purple, these are often lumped together into a single category: red. I’ve heard purple sweaters, orange carrots, and brown leather boots all called “red.” Is this due to differences in vision, differences in language, or something else altogether—culture? Red is an extremely important color in China. It is the color of wealth, luck, celebration, communism, and happiness. Perhaps this deeply ingrained symbolism has caused the entire Chinese mindset to “lean red.”

I suspect, however, that these minor differences in language are less culturally significant than most of us are eager to believe. Sapir and Whorf might disagree with me, but sometimes I have to stop myself from reading too much into distinctions of language. Chinese speakers always differentiate among types of noodles, and English speakers always differentiate among shades of red. This doesn’t mean, however, that Chinese people are unable to see the differences in colors, or that I am unable to learn the differences between noodles and use their names correctly. Linguistic tests have suggested that language may influence the speed and accuracy with which speakers identify categories of things (such as colors), but there is no evidence to suggest that we cannot learn to overcome these influences with a little awareness and practice.

Languages divide the spectrum of the world into different-sized pieces, but I suspect that the underlying world is still the same.


(This is a bowl of fensi from the aforementioned restaurant, served with quail eggs, sausage, seaweed, and lots of other delicious things in a hearty, earthy broth)