2004 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn
Recently I have begun studying Chinese (long overdue) and today in the stream of consciousness kind of way that I absorb most knowledge I learnt that the Caribbean Sea is called Jialebi Hai 加勒比海. This beautiful, melodious transliteration of the way the word is pronounced (not a translation of its original meaning) immediately transported me to a dreamy, floating world of turquoise waters, blinding white sands, warm breezes gently sashaying around palm trees, platanos fritos, rum punches, pelvises pressed together and a man's hand firmly placed on my lower back, guiding me in a rythmic salsa. I suppose the past few balmy days here in Chengdu have stirred my Cuban roots out of their subconscious hibernation causing my mind to wander a bit too freely.
It's wonderful how not only the meaning of a word can bring you greater enlightenment but its sound may carry you to places you wouldn't have imagined. Just as exotic sounding destinations like Kashgar, Turfan, Lhasa, Gobi, Shanghai and Peking conjured up images of dusty camel caravanserai, tinkling pagodas, magnificent palaces and dark alleyways teeming with exotic-eyed, black-haired peoples to pop into my child's mind over 40 years ago, hearing Jialebi Hai teleported me into a tropical world where sitting in my classroom chair I suddenly saw hibiscus flowers sprout from the teacher's head and little paper cocktail parasols grow out of the end of my pen.
The magnetic pull of romantic sounding foreign placenames was a great impetus to start traveling when I grew up but surely traveling in your head is much cheaper? Back to the classroom: along the way a few other geographical words were thrown into today's lesson: Portugal is Putaoya 葡萄牙 (which literally means Grape Teeth); Cuba becomes the masculine, meaty sounding Guba 古巴 and something I've known for a long time: Sweden, Ruidian 瑞典. Why Sweden is pronounced Ruidian is because it has its beginnings in the Cantonese Suidin, a phonetic translation. Converted into putonghua it became Ruidian whose first character means "auspiscious" or "lucky". Lucky me!