The Power of "Turtle Eggs"
by Annabel Liu
When several physics graduate students at the University of Maryland got together for dinner one evening, the topic of conversation somehow meandered from science, to ó of all things ó cuss words. After they gave the subject a pretty thorough going over, one fellow happened to ask Ruo-wei the only Chinese-American in the group, "Whatís the worst cuss word in Chinese?"
Poor Ruo-wei was put on the spot. During her childhood, her parents had made efforts to teach her their native tongue and she had resisted. Her resistance apparently spawned from two sources. One, it was difficult for a child to see the need of learning a language no one else spoke or cared about. Two, speaking a different language would only exacerbate her situation at school already made difficult by the fact she was different.
To be accepted at school is of overwhelming importance for every child, but Ruo-wei had an inherent disadvantage. One of fewer than a handful of Asian children in school, she was keenly aware of her difference.
At some point in most Chinese-American childrenís lives, they come to the realization that it is easy not to speak Chinese, less easy not to think and behave like Chinese, but impossible not to look Chinese, or be perceived as foreign.
One could write reams about how these children grow from being aware of their difference, and accepting that fact, to taking an active interest in their heritage. Suffice it to say that in college Ruo-wei took and enjoyed Chinese language and history courses. But as far as mastering the language was concerned, it was too little, too late.
Faced with such a pivotal question, she had to search high and low in her limited Chinese vocabulary until she found her answer: "wang ba dan!"
Unfurling their tongues with great effort, her friends practiced these exotic words till they mastered the pronunciations as well as the troublesome intonations. Then came the next question: "What do these words mean?"
This proved to be another difficult query for Ruo-wei. She knew for sure that "dan" meant egg, and she vaguely remembered that "wang ba" means turtle, so that made "wang ba dan" turtle eggs. Her answer brought on loud laughter from her friends, all Caucasian Americans. What was the big deal about turtle eggs, for heavenís sake? One could hardly blame them for their lack of proper respect for the power of turtle eggs. From the American point of view, animals are created equal. With the exceptions of female dogs who can use an image-repairing job, and rats, who are doomed to suffer from "affection"-deficit disorder no matter what culture they live in, animals are almost as equal as humans in this land of milk and honey. Anyone who has ever visited a pet shop, a veterinarian hospital, or a pet cemetery may even argue with success that some animals are more equal than humans.
Turtles are simply one species in the animal kingdom. Why should their eggs be so obnoxious? If turtle eggs were despicable, what about pigeon or fish eggs? How could Chinese have such tender ears that they would take offense at something so innocuous?
After the laughter died down, one astute fellow pointed out that their own school namely, the University of Maryland, had a unique connection with turtles.
Indeed, every high school and university in this country has its own mascot, an animal that is supposed to bring good luck for the institution. It just so happened that the mascot of the University of Maryland is none other than the terrapin, the collective title for various species of edible fresh- or tide-water turtles in North America. Every University of Maryland sports function prominently features a student waving the university flag while wearing a grayish- green costume depicting the terrapin.
"Oh-oh," lamented Mike, "since turtle represents our school doesnít that make us students turtle eggs?"
A sobering thought, but Bryan said not to worry. "Look, we are graduate students, students who have graduated, so we are eggs that have already hatched. Itís those undergrads who are eggs that may never hatch."
They had another round of hearty laughter about that. Hatched or not, being physics students, they would not take Ruo-wei or anyone elseís words for it on this or any other matter. They needed scientific proof. It behooved them to conduct an experiment to measure the vileness quotient of turtle eggs.
The opportunity presented itself the very next morning, when they saw a Chinese student they knew in a corridor in the department. In unison they yelled at him: "Wang ba dan!"
The guy was more than mortified. He stumbled backward, his face turning white then beet red. Wow, Ruo-wei was right. Turtle eggs were truly devastating.
But why? They became even more curious. Since Ruo-wei didnít know, they had to ask their "victim," who, still looking stricken, shook his head emphatically:
"You are better off not knowing!"
Ruo-wei later did get her answer during a visit to her parents. For those of you who are still in the dark but have a burning desire to know, "wang ba dan" means, as you may suspect, more than turtle eggs.
In Chinese, an egg is a pejorative term for "offspring," and a turtle can be either "wang ban or "wu guei." Both "wang ba" and "wu guei" have been designated to symbolize the lowest of the low ó a man who suffers the worst indignity of manhood, having a wife who, to put it delicately, has strayed. While both can be used for either the animal or a disgraced husband, "wang ba" somehow is much more derogatory. It is definitely one of the most vicious epithets one man can hurl at another.
To add an egg to that epithet, therefore, is to attack, in a single swoop, the person so addressed and both of his parents. As such, it is more potent than the American expression that refers to a man as the son of the female sex of a certain animal which, for reasons of decorum, shall remain unnamed here.
Ms. Annabel Liu is a bilingual freelance writer whose work has appeared in many newspapers and magazines in the U.S., Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Reprinted with permission from the Chinese American Forum.
This is part of our continuing series, Bridging the Cultural Gap: The Overseas-Asian Experience. If you have an Overseas-Asian experience you would like to share, please feel free to send it in! firstname.lastname@example.org
Bridge illustration by Duke Windsor.
Part one in our continuing series:
What is "Field Trip" in Chinese? (February 1998)