“Teach me a curse in Chinese,” I said. It was at a house party, generously hosted by a friend of mine who had lived in China for several years, and one of his guests there was a friend who he had met in China who had since migrated to the United States to pursue higher education there. I had already mastered “你好”, or “hello”, by this point in the conversation, and we had all mastered several cocktails.
“他妈的”, someone replied. “It means ‘fuck your mother’.” What followed was a short debate, which I won’t pretend to remember the details of, over what *exactly* this utterance signified, and come to think of it I think the debate took place partially in Mandarin so I wouldn’t have been able to follow it anyway.
Eventually, they got around to helping me with my pronunciation. This is how I remember it: “ta-ma-da.”
A year later, I was in Georgia.
Probably a native speaker of Mandarin would not mistake the Georgian word “თამადა” (“tamada”, or “toastmaster”) for this Chinese swear word, rendered as “tā māde” in pinyin, the standard Latin character rendition of Mandarin words. Tamada has very light initial stress and three identical vowel sounds (when spoken by a Georgian); “tā māde” has tones – high-high-neutral – that end up sounding to an Anglophone like two stressed syllables followed by an unstressed syllable, and the final vowel is a schwa.
However, you have to admit the words are similar.
The literal meaning of “tā māde” is “his mother’s”, but the phrase is used as a general-purpose expletive, or expanded upon for additional vulgarity or nuance. In fact, it’s somewhat similar in concept and execution to the Georgian swear “sheni deda”, which literally means “your mother” but which can also be used as a general expletive or expanded upon for additional vulgarity. Also, like “sheni deda”, “tā māde” is a somewhat canonical swear – having been called China’s national swear in 1920 by writer Lu Xun, and appearing in Firefly, and even having been shortened to “TMD” for IM/SMS shorthand.
So what does this have to do with anything? I noticed the connection the first time I learned the word “tamada”, and was vaguely amused, and then mostly forgot about it. I rarely (not never, but rarely) have occasion to swear at anybody in Chinese, and shouting “tamada” at people in Georgia is unlikely to have the sort of impact I’m usually going for when I curse someone out in a language they don’t understand (my go-to for that is “vaffanculo” if I’m in a classic sort of mood or “kus emek” if I’m feeling exotic).
Well as it turns out, TLG is going to be bringing a small number of Mandarin teachers to Georgia to teach Mandarin to Georgian schoolchildren. I am skeptical of the idea that China is going to rule the world and our grandchildren will all be speaking Mandarin, but Georgia does have some business with Chinese investors already (hydropower, for instance) and it never hurts to diversify your portfolio. The TLG Mandarin volunteers will have to speak English, in order to communicate with TLG staff and with their coteachers. I would love to be in a classroom to watch a Chinese teacher teaching Mandarin to Georgian schoolchildren in English with a Georgian translator. Just imagine it… magnificent.
Anyway, other than teaching Mandarin the Chinese TLGVs will have the same arrangement we do, so they’ll be living with a host family. A host family that will take them to a supra. A supra that will have a tamada. In my imagination, hilarity has already ensued.