At dinner with friends not long ago, we got to cataloging all the terrible things abroad in the world, from natural disasters (tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes) to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to severe malnutrition among millions in the Horn of Africa.
I was reminded of that old saw purported to be an old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
There is no evidence that this phrase, which sounds a bit like a witch’s spell, is actually Chinese — much less ancient — but it seems particularly apt for our post-millennial days.
It’s possible, or even likely, I’ll admit, that the times we’re now living in might not actually be more interesting than other decades; maybe the impression of dark days and watershed moments has more to do with our increased awareness of what is occurring around the globe.
Still, I never expected that I would live to see some of the truly interesting events that have transpired so far in the 21st century — the Arab Spring, for example. (If these revolutions are the fulfillment of some mystical curse, clearly it was cast not at the people in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt but at the leaders of those repressive regimes.) Like the Arab Spring, the occupation of Wall Street, which came as a most “interesting” surprise to me, is a positive movement in American history: The Tea Partiers are not the only activists with conviction and spirit.
Meanwhile, while I’ve happened upon the subject, I think it’s time to abandon this idea of the Chinese curse and other so-called Chinese (hence exotic or mysterious) thises and thats. At The Star, we’ve had a longstanding rule against using the term “Chinese auction,” for example, in our editorial columns. Silent auction is a perfect substitute. More often than not, our forebears tacked the word “Chinese” in front of a noun when they wanted to suggest that whatever it was was spicy, mysterious, secretive, and hence intriguing. (Because, don’t you know, “Orientals” are inscrutable?)
Even worse is the continuing use of the word Chinese to indicate something that is confused, disorganized, or inferior. A Chinese fire drill may sound harmless enough, especially when it refers to a collegiate-style prank in which everyone in a car that has stopped at a traffic light gets out and circles around it. But it also is associated with a number of other phrases dating back to World War I that have, thankfully, disappeared from common use. (A “Chinese national anthem” supposedly once referred to an explosion, for example, and a “Chinese ace” to an inept pilot. Oy!)
I am sure that no one in any of our local organizations that sometime hold Chinese auctions ever realized the term could be considered outright derogatory at worst and obnoxious at best. Two of my grandchildren now go to a school that is making the study of Mandarin Chinese mandatory. When I went to grade school, it was likely to be Latin. But, well, we live in interesting times.