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Lost in Translation: 捣浆糊 / 混呛水

Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

Welcome to Lost in Translation, a collection of articles where I explore terms that don’t have simple translations in English. These terms might be personal to me or might be interesting simply because of the ideas they convey, but the question answered at the end of each piece is if English is a poorer language for lack of this term. The first article in this series can be found here. This one is a doubleheader, both Shanghainese terms have similar meanings that well describe a certain aspect of living in this modern world.

The structure of the early twentieth century has been eroded by modernism and its descendants, giving way to the wilderness of the twenty-first. Even within the new millennium, the order continues to fade and the saliency between hard work and good results becomes increasingly nefarious. The only certainty in life continues to be death, taxes, and software engineers making money hand over first. Even for those with well-defined career paths, the standard for progression is to constantly move from one job to the next; the company man died with the Bluetooth headset. Even with respect to one’s personal and romantic lives, this phenomenon has become increasingly true: gone are the days of marriage in one’s twenties, kids in one’s thirties, midlife crisis by forties, and dead by a heart attack in the fifties. Instead, everyone is doomed to walk this earth until their eighties, with transient friends and romances along the way.

So, the standard English answer when asked about how life, work, or a relationship is progressing is a non-answer: “it’s chill”, “I’m vibing”, or the now antiquated: “living the dream!” Because most people aren’t going anywhere, nor do they have plans to. This sentiment, particularly with respect to work, is well-captured by the Shanghainese expression 捣浆糊, dǎo jiàng húin in Mandarin pinyin. Literally, the expression means to mix 浆糊. 浆糊is a sort of rice paste frequently used as glue in pre-modern China, and sometimes when pasting community organizing posters in modern-day Canada. It’s often a by-product of dinner, and not challenging to make, similar to a thick congee; of course, a big pot of it needs to be mixed to prevent it from congealing and clumping, but the mixing doesn’t require much effort, nor do any additional turns of the spatula really contribute anything.

In Shanghainese, the expression 捣浆糊 refers to a state of idleness that can be equated to mixing a pot of rice paste: work that isn’t entirely trivial, but certainly doesn’t require much effort or thought. 捣浆糊 is generally intended as an insult, or at the very least a disparaging remark about someone’s productivity, be it at work, school, or other personal endeavours. It doesn’t mean failure as it’s pretty hard to fail stirring porridge, but it certainly indicates a lack of ambition, an absence of a situation where failure is even possible. Someone who 捣浆糊 at school has an average of around C, someone who 捣浆糊 at work is happy being in middle management for the rest of their lives, and someone who 捣浆糊 at a hobby has no aspirations of making it anything more than a hobby. Though the term is light and not vulgar by a long shot, very rarely will someone ever say that they 捣浆糊, though people will claim to be 混呛水.

混呛水, or hùn qiāng shuǐ, is a bit harder to explain. Literally, the characters that make up the phrase mean “mix choking water” in both senses of the word mix: someone could be mixing the water like the rice paste, but they also could be mixed along and flowing with the water. However, it is said that the phrase originates from a transliteration of 混 “chance”. As Shanghai was one of the port concessions after the Opium Wars, there was a significant amount of contact with foreigners, and some English was incorporated into the dialect. So with either interpretation, the phrase can mean to be casually partaking in whichever activity. Similarly to 捣浆糊, it can be applied to school, work, or a hobby, and is the opposite of hardworking. That people will claim to be 混呛水 but not 捣浆糊 is a subtlety that I noticed, and my understanding provides a further degree of nuance: 混呛水 implies more of active participation in the idleness, and almost gives the understanding that someone is waiting for their opportunity, for their chance, so to speak.

In this uncertain world, where even motivation is precarious, many people are “figuring things out”, and accepting situations that are “good enough”. When there isn’t enough impetus to overcome the inertia of the known, of the comfortable, then everyone is either 混呛水 or 捣浆糊. But as per my understanding, those who are 捣浆糊 have effectively given up at whatever project they’re working on; they aim to the bare minimum, keeping their head above water. Those who 混呛水 on the other hand, are doing what’s expected of them, but keep something in the tank; If an opportunity arises, they’ll seize it. They’re playing the game, and when the cards are right, they’ll seize their chance. 混呛水 can also describe someone’s current life, just aimlessly floating, whether through various dead-end jobs or in a single middle management position. But while someone’s life can be spent 捣浆糊, their life cannot be described as such. In standard usage, however, both designate someone who does a questionable job of the task at hand, and the distinction is subtle.

In a world of people who are 混呛水 and 捣浆糊, it pays to be 混呛水. It doesn’t require much more energy, and leaves open a window of opportunity. But as the distinction is slim, so are the advantages. If everyone on a team was 混呛水 or 捣浆糊, that team would fail sooner or later. Some companies can continue to coast despite this, due to their size and the effort of their forebearers. Monopoly power and accumulated assets can keep a company of snack-eating, La Croix-swilling workers happily employed for a while. Similarly, if everyone in society was just “vibing”, it wouldn’t be a very productive society, but international monetary structure and exploitation of foreign states can keep a country relevant for a few centuries. However, each would eventually fail. Not because its constituents are lazy, but because they don’t believe in the future.

I think that the English language is poorer for not having this term, and instead having to resort to an amalgamation of many words to describe the feeling of inertia. Particularly in this contradictory era of alienation and hedonism, many are simple 混呛水 through life. If this feeling of ennui could be captured by a verb, it’d be 混呛水, and I think it is sorely needed in English.

But as in a world of people who are 捣浆糊, those who are 混呛水 have an advantage, and those who wholeheartedly believe in what they’re doing have even more of an edge. In a world where everyone is “living the dream”, why don’t you actually go live the dream? Why not give something your all? Not only will it be fulfilling, but it’ll also instantly put you above the teeming masses of those who are 混呛水. I’m not peddling the grindset, nor am I encouraging everyone to become a tool of capitalist oppression. Sometimes it’s perfectly okay to do the bare minimum. But life goes by quickly. There needs to be something in life that everyone takes seriously.

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