Chinese Wife and American Husband Team Create a Chinese Proverbs and Popular Sayings Book: Interview with the Authors
June 22nd, 2012
In our never ending search for all things Chinese we came across this great book about Chinese Proverbs. I noticed that the authors are a bi-cultural couple or one is Chinese and the other is a Westerner. Well, I was really interested in their story and what brought them to write this kind of book (which we highly recommend) and they were surprisingly very approachable and extremely kind to write back a very long e-mail answering all our questions! They are both professors at Michigan’s Calvin College (which has a vibrant Chinese program) so when I wrote to them it was not a very opportune time since they were in the middle of finals!
I asked a series of questions about their lives together, their new book and their opinions on Americans and westerners studying Chinese. Enjoy their answers:
MandMx: Mr. Herzberg, what experience do you have in China or studying Chinese?
Herzbergs: I BEGAN STUDYING CHINESE AT VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY IN 1972, AND THEN WENT ON FOR MASTER’S AND PH.D. WORK IN CHINESE LITERATURE AT INDIANA UNIVERSITY UNTIL 1980.
I’VE BEEN TO CHINA 13 TIMES, NOT COUNTING OUR UPCOMING EMERGENCY TRIP, AND HAVE SEEN A GOOD DEAL OF THE COUNTRY. SINCE I’VE BEEN TRAVELING TO CHINA SINCE 1982, I’VE WITNESSED THE AMAZING CHANGES THAT HAVE OCCURRED IN THAT COUNTRY OVER THE PAST THREE DECADES.
MandMx: Mrs. Herzberg, what experience do you have in America or studying English?
Herzbergs: QIN CAME TO THE U.S. IN 1986 TO GET A MASTER’S DEGREE IN CHRISTIAN EDUCATION FROM CALVIN COLLEGE. SHE ONLY STUDIED ENGLISH FORMALLY FOR SIX MONTHS IN WISCONSIN RIGHT BEFORE THAT, IN AN ESL PROGRAM IN MADISON.
HER ENGLISH NOW IS QUITE EXCELLENT. SHE’S NOT ONLY FLUENT, BUT FOR YEARS HAS READ ARTICLES DAILY FROM THE NY TIMES, ETC.
MandMx: Where are you both from originally?
Herzbergs: QIN IS FROM BEIJING, WHERE SHE SPENT THE FIRST 29 YEARS OF HER LIFE. SHE’S A TOP GRADUATE OF ONE OF THEIR TOP UNIVERSITIES, BEIJING NORMAL U., IN CHINESE LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE. I’M ORIGINALLY FROM WILMETTE, A NORTHERN SUBURB OF CHICAGO.
MandMx: Do you consider yourselves to be a “husband/wife team?”
Herzbergs: WE ABSOLUTELY DO SEE OURSELVES AS A HUSBAND AND WIFE TEAM. THE PROVERBS BOOK IS OUR THIRD COLLABORATION OF A BOOK. OUR “CHINA SURVIVAL GUIDE” HAS ALREADY SOLD NEARLY 15,000 COPIES AND IS SELLING AS WELL OR BETTER THAN EVER RIGHT NOW. OUR BOOK ON CHINESE GRAMMAR, “THE BASICS OF CHINESE GRAMMAR”, HAS ALSO BEEN SELLING WELL AND IS USED BY SOME PROFESSORS AS A SUPPLEMENTARY TEXTBOOK. WE HAVE MADE ONE DOCUMENTARY FILM ON CHINA TOGETHER, CALLED “CHINA TODAY: ISSUES THAT TROUBLE AMERICANS AT THE START OF THE 21ST CENTURY”, WILL FINISH ANOTHER FILM THIS SUMMER, AND WILL BEGIN VIDEOTAPING A THIRD THIS SUMMER IN BEIJING. WE ALSO HAVE AT LEAST ONE MORE BOOK PLANNED WITH US AS CO-AUTHORS. SO FUN TO WORK WITH YOUR LIFE PARTNER ON PROJECTS LIKE THIS!
MandMx: Why did you write your new book “Chinese Proverbs and Popular Sayings: With Observations on Culture and Language?”
Herzbergs: TO SHOW STUDENTS OF THE CHINESE LANGUAGE AND CULTURE AS WELL AS PEOPLE WHO KNOW NOTHING ABOUT EITHER HOW THE CHINESE PROVERBS AND SAYINGS REFLECT THE WAY THE CHINESE VIEW THE WORLD, BOTH IN THE PAST AND IN THE PRESENT. WE INCLUDED THE CHARACTERS AND PINYIN FOR THOSE PEOPLE WHO DO KNOW THE LANGUAGE, SO THAT THEY CAN NOT ONLY SEE THE ORIGINAL, BUT WILL UNDERSTAND THESE SAYINGS WHEN CHINESE NATIVE SPEAKERS USE THEM. AND THEY USE THEM ALL THE TIME! IT’S ALSO IMPORTANT FOR NON-NATIVE SPEAKERS OF THE LANGUAGE TO LEARN TO SAY SOME OF THEM, SO THAT THEIR SPEECH WILL NOT ”LACK FLAVOR”, BUT BE MORE VIVID AND COLORFUL.
MandMx: Why did you specifically include the Chinese characters in the book for the proverbs?
Herzbergs: WE DID WANT TO SHOW THE TRUE VERSION OF THE PROVERBS THAT THE CHINESE REALLY DO USE. SOME PROVERBS BOOKS REALLY GIVE DISTORTED TRANSLATIONS OF THESE SAYINGS, AS WELL AS INCLUDING SOME DUBIOUS OR QUITE UNCOMMON SAYINGS.
MandMx: Since you both teach at a university, what do you think about your experiences teaching Chinese or Chinese culture to American college students?
Herzbergs: IT’S TREMENDOUSLY GRATIFYING TO SHARE OUR LOVE OF THE CHINESE LANGUAGE AND CULTURE WITH INTERESTED AND TALENTED STUDENTS. WE WANT OUR STUDENTS TO SERVE A BRIDGE BETWEEN CULTURES, CLICHED AS THAT SOUNDS. AMERICANS IN PARTICULAR SO MISUNDERSTAND CHINA TODAY, THAT IT’S VITAL THAT WE TRAIN SOME KNOWLEDGEABLE PEOPLE IN THE FIELD OF CHINESE LANGUAGE AND CHINESE STUDIES, TO HELP BETTER EDUCATE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE AND AVOID AN UNNECESSARY AND SENSELESS COLD WAR WITH CHINA. A NUMBER OF OUR STUDENTS HAVE GONE ON FOR GRADUATE WORK IN CHINESE OR CHINESE STUDIES. SOME ARE ALREADY WORKING IN INTERNATIONAL LAW, GOVERNMENT, BUSINESS, TEACHING, OR MISSIONS EITHER IN CHINA OR IN THE U.S.
MandMx: What do you think about the teaching of Chinese in America today? Booming? Blooming? Good? bad?
Herzbergs: IT’S BOOMING, FOR SURE. ENROLLMENTS IN CHINESE LANGUAGE CLASSES HAVE AT LEAST DOUBLED IF NOT TRIPLED IN LESS THAN A DECADE AT AMERICAN COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. IN GRAND RAPIDS ALONE, THE PAST 7-8 YEARS HAS SEEN AT LEAST SIX OR SEVEN AREA HIGH SCHOOLS ADD CHINESE LANGUAGE PROGRAMS, WHEREAS 8 YEARS AGO THERE WERE NONE! AND SEVERAL AREA GRADE SCHOOLS HAVE ALREADY BEGUN CHINESE LANGUAGE IMMERSION PROGRAMS, ALONG WITH SPANISH.
THIS IS ALL TO THE GOOD. THE QUALITY OF THE PROGRAMS IN COLLEGES IS STRONG, AND THE HIGH SCHOOL PROGRAMS CONTINUE TO IMPROVE.
MandMx: Do you have any children?
Herzbergs: BY DESIGN, WE HAVE NO BIOLOGICAL CHILDREN. WE DO, HOWEVER, HAVE AROUND ONE HUNDRED “ADULT CHILDREN” EVERY YEAR AT CALVIN COLLEGE! WE SEE OUR STUDENTS AS OUR CHILDREN AND CARE FOR THEM ACCORDINGLY.
MandMx: What are some good things about a “cross cultural marriage” and some bad things?
Herzbergs: WE FEEL THAT A CROSS-CULTURAL MARRIAGE CAN BE MORE INTERESTING THAN A MARRIAGE BETWEEN PEOPLE OF SIMILAR CULTURAL BACKGROUNDS, IF BOTH PEOPLE IN THE MARRIAGE TRY TO UNDERSTAND THE CULTURE OF THE OTHER ONE. IN OUR CASE, I HAD STUDIED THE CHINESE LANGUAGE AND CULTURE FOR 15 YEARS BEFORE QIN AND I MET, AND QIN HAS LIVED IN THE STATES FOR 26 YEARS ALREADY. SO WE ARE IN THE UNIQUE POSITION OF UNDERSTANDING WELL EACH OTHER’S BACKGROUNDS.
THIS HAS ENRICHED MY LIFE IMMENSELY, AS I HAVE IMPROVED MY UNDERSTANDING OF THE CHINESE LANGUAGE AND CULTURE BY LIVING WITH A WELL-EDUCATED NATIVE SPEAKER.
WE HAVE ENCOUNTERED FEW CULTURAL PROBLEMS. THE BIGGEST, I SUPPOSE, ON MY SIDE IS TO UNDERSTAND THAT THE CHINESE DO NOT USUALLY EXPRESS THANKS OR LOVE TO THEIR FAMILY MEMBERS. THOSE THINGS ARE UNDERSTOOD AND IMPLIED IN THE LOVING THINGS YOUR SPOUSE/FAMILY MEMBER DOES FOR YOU. ON QIN’S SIDE, I KNOW SHE’S BEEN DISAPPOINTED TO DISCOVER THAT, WHILE MOST CHINESE COOK AND COOK WELL, MOST AMERICAN MEN, INCLUDING ME, DO NOT!
WHAT I’VE DISCOVERED IS THAT THERE IS A LOT LARGER CULTURAL DIVIDE BETWEEN EDUCATED AND UN-EDUCATED PEOPLE OF THE SAME CULTURE THAN THERE IS BETWEEN EDUCATED PEOPLE OF DIFFERENT CULTURES. BOTH QIN AND I HAD READ THE SAME WORKS OF BOTH WESTERN AND CHINESE LITERATURE, LISTENED AND LOVED THE SAME CLASSICAL WESTERN MUSIC, HAD SEEN THE SAME FAMOUS FRENCH, ITALIAN, AND SWEDISH FILMS, ETC., ETC. WHEREAS I HAVE ALMOST NOTHING IN COMMON WITH LESS CULTURED AND LESS EDUCATED PEOPLE IN MICHIGAN THAN I DO WITH QIN AND HER FAMILY AND FRIENDS.
MandMx: What are some adjustments you’ve both had to make due to cultural issues in your life together? Taking care of parents? When you shower? Financial issues? Food issues?
Herzbergs: NO BIG ADJUSTMENTS. BOTH CHINESE AND AMERICANS BELIEVE IN CARING FOR THEIR FAMILY MEMBERS. I’M USED TO SHOWERING IN THE EVENING, SINCE I’VE LONG AGO ACCEPTED THE ASIAN NOTION THAT YOU NEED TO BE CLEAN WHEN YOU GO TO BED. BUT WE BOTH SHOWER IN THE MORNING AS WELL. WE BOTH LOVE CHINESE FOOD AS WELL AS THE SAME WESTERN FOODS, SO NO PROBLEM THERE. AND WE BASICALLY AGREE ON A BALANCE BETWEEN ENJOYING LIFE AND SAVING FOR THE FUTURE, SO NO FINANCIAL ISSUES EITHER.
MandMx: What are your favorite books to read?
Herzbergs: BOOKS ON CHINA, BOOKS ABOUT ANIMALS, BOOKS THAT ARE WRITTEN FROM A LOVING PERSPECTIVE, AND BOOKS THAT MAKE YOU THINK ABOUT IMPORTANT ISSUES IN THE WORLD TODAY.
MandMx: What are your favorite China books to read?
Herzbergs: THE GREAT CLASSICS, FROM “LIAO ZHAI” TO “XI YOU JI”. I PARTICULARLY LOVE ZHUANGZI, ALTHOUGH QIN DOESN’T PARTICULARLY.
MandMx: What news sites do you go to for China news?
Herzbergs: QIN READS A GREAT NUMBER OF CHINESE WEB SITES EACH DAY FOR NEWS, AS WELL AS THE NY TIMES WEB SITE. SHE READS THE BBC NEWS IN CHINESE AS WELL AS THE WORLD JOURNAL, AND MANY, MANY MORE.
MandMx: What resources do you use most for your classes?
Herzbergs: THE MAJOR TEXTBOOKS USED BY OTHER COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES, INCLUDING THE SECOND AND THIRD BOOKS IN THE INTEGRATED CHINESE SERIES, AND “CHINA SCENE” FOR THE FOURTH YEAR COURSE. FOR FIRST YEAR CHINESE, I’VE CREATED MY OWN TEXTBOOKS FOR EACH SEMESTER, ALONG WITH WORKBOOKS.
FOR SECOND YEAR, I HAVE THE STUDENTS USE THREE SUPPLEMENTARY READERS, INCLUDING THE 80-PAGE NOVEL, “LADY IN THE PAINTING”, CONTEMPORARY CHINESE VERSIONS OF 20 OF THE “LIAOZHAI” STORIES BY PU SONGLING, AND A CHINESE JOKEBOOK. I ALSO REQUIRE THAT STUDENTS BUY THE GRAMMAR HANDBOOK THAT WE CREATED, NAMELY “BASIC PATTERNS OF CHINESE GRAMMAR: A STUDENT’S GUIDE TO CORRECT STRUCTURES AND COMMON ERRORS”.
MandMx: When was the last time you were in China?
Herzbergs: QIN IN MARCH OF THIS YEAR, AND BOTH OF US IN MAY AND June OF 2010.
MandMx: What are your favorite foods from each other’s country? Larry your favorite Chinese food? Qin your favorite American food?
Herzbergs: FOR ME, JIAOZI, FOLLOWED BY ALMOST EVERY OTHER KIND OF CHINESE FOOD!
FOR QIN, IT’S PIZZA, ALTHOUGH ABSOLUTELY NOT WITH PEPPERONI OR ANY OTHER MEAT ON IT. JUST VEGETARIAN PIZZA WITH GOAT CHEESE!
MandMx: Are you able to find good Chinese vegetables near your home or do you have to drive far to get good Chinese veggies?
Herzbergs: GRAND RAPIDS NOW HAS A NUMBER OF ASIAN GROCERY STORES THAT CARRY GOOD CHINESE VEGGIES. BUT OUR LOCAL MEIJER HAS ALSO CARRIED SOME CHINESE VEGGIES IN RECENT YEARS, DUE TO AN INCREASING NUMBER OF CHINESE PEOPLE IN OUR CITY AND EVEN IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD. HURRAY FOR DIVERSITY!
MandMx: What advice would you give to people studying Mandarin Chinese or Chinese culture?
Herzbergs: BUY OUR GRAMMAR BOOK! BUT SERIOUSLY, FIND A GOOD TEACHER, IF POSSIBLE. AND GO TO CHINA TO EXPERIENCE THE COUNTRY YOURSELF. PEOPLE WILL QUICKLY DISCOVER THAT OUR MEDIA DISTORTS CHINA QUITE BADLY AND PRESENTS WAY TOO DARK A PICTURE OF A COUNTRY THAT HAS MADE INCREDIBLE PROGRESS IN MOST AREAS OVER THE PAST THREE DECADES. THEY’LL DEFINITELY COME BACK SAYING WHAT ALL OUT STUDENTS AND FRIENDS SAY AFTER VISITING CHINA: “I LOVED THE PEOPLE MOST OF ALL!”
MandMx: Do you want to live in China in the future? Or retire there?
Herzbergs: ABSOLUTELY NOT! THERE ARE THINGS WE DO NOT LIKE AT ALL ABOUT AMERICA–THE SELF-CENTEREDNESS, THE UBIQUITOUS GUNS AND FEAR OF VIOLENT CRIME, ETC. BUT CHINA IS STILL FAR BEHIND THE U.S. IN THE QUALITY OF LIFE OR IN CREATURE COMFORTS. AND WE HAVE NATURE AROUND US, WITH OUR BIG BACKYARDS AND CLEANER AIR. CHINA JUST HAS TOO MANY PEOPLE AND, IN SPITE OF TREMENDOUS PROGRESS, IS STILL IN MANY WAYS A DEVELOPING NATION. AND, OF COURSE, EVEN THOUGH CHINA IS SO MUCH FREER A SOCIETY THAN IT WAS EVEN 30 YEARS AGO WHEN I BEGAN TEACHING CHINESE, IT’S STILL NOT THE OPEN AND FREE SOCIETY THAT WE ENJOY IN THIS COUNTRY. IT’S JUST NOWHERE AS BAD AS PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY TEND TO BELIEVE.
See some of our own Proverbs or Popular Sayings in Comics!