A couple of months ago when we were discussing Chinese idiomatic stories and Chinese metaphors in my high school class, I used some of the commonly used English ones as examples. My students looked at me as if I were speaking Martian when I mentioned the phrase don’t throw the baby out with bath water! Their expression went from puzzlement, to horror, to disgust, to doubt .. well, that was quite common. Since English is my second language, when they do not understand me, one of their habitual reaction is that I say it wrong. Some of them quickly did a search online, and was still confused or even more terrified because they somehow left out the ‘don’t’ in the phrase.
We eventually burst out laughing about it. But the really funny thing is they have absolutely never heard of the phrase!
As I went on to bring in the second one, there was another round of disagreements and laughter. And, of course, more Google Search. They insisted that it actually meant, literally, the cats and dogs were being dropped from heaven when it rained! And they found a picture to prove it!
This was what they found: Raining animals is a rare meteorological phenomenon in which flightless animals “rain” from the sky.
This was what I found: raining very heavily. However, the etymology was slightly different than what I used to envision… dripping cats and dogs on the streets during a heavy down pour which is so heavy that even the poor creatures have nowhere to hide.
Nonetheless, we have this gap in literacy that a good representation of students today do not know/appreciate/understand these metaphors? how did the gap occur? These metaphors sound very ‘foreign’ to these post-90’s teenagers! They either have not heard of it, or have a different understanding of the metaphors. Is it an issue with the education (an easy target for criticism)? Retrospectively speaking, I did not learn neither one of these phrases in school, I learned them from TV or reading, then I looked them up in a dictionary or asked the native speakers about them. We all say that information is ubiquitous nowadays, then… what has happened to learning?
I believe that it is the attitude. I recently read a posting that goes something like this:
It is the mindset that drives one’s attitude,
the attitude drives the behaviors,
the behavior drives the habits,
the habits drives the personality,
and the personality drives one’s lifetime!
So what is the ‘mindset’, how is it formed, can it be influenced, are we born with it, do we acquire it? I don’t have an answer to these questions. What I do know is that in Chinese culture (does not mean that it is correct, I am just sharing what I know) , we do not speak of ‘mind’, but we speak of ‘heart’. We believe that everything, i.e. thoughts, desires, dreams, decisions, etc., originates from our ‘heart’, not in terms of the physical organ, but by a metaphorical inference. ‘Heart’ is what gives one’s livelihood. e.g. Home is wherever one’s heart is.
So if our ‘hearts’ are not in the right place, then we will not have the attitude we need for positive behaviors or productive habits to determine our lives. I can reiterate this message to my students till the cows come home, but for some of them, they have very apparent priorities that go the other directions. So in the end of the day, the best that we, as educators, can do is to lead a horse to the water but we cannot make it drink.