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Babble on – the challenge of making sense in China

HypermarketA friend of mine was supposed to meet me for lunch in Shanghai the other day, but he was late. Typical. His mother says that he was born two weeks after his due date and that set the pattern for the rest of his life. But when I called his mobile phone I heard a cryptic message saying, in English: “The mobile phone subscriber you dialed is power off now.” Yeah … that about describes him: totally “Power Off.”

For me, one of the many joys of living in China is experiencing the cacophony of languages, a daily grab-bag of accents and dialects. I’m never sure what is going to come out of someone’s mouth or even what it might mean when it does come out. It is in part my own fault for traveling so much. Just when I get used to the bird-talk of Shanghai taxi drivers, I’m off to Beijing where they speak with mouths full of marbles and then to the tonal loop-de-loops of Hong Kong where trying to follow a simple conversation makes me airsick.

English, as it is used in China, may be source of frustration, but it also provides plenty of fun. And far be it from me to criticize anyone who speaks English as a second language. I am an American and we can’t even speak our native tongue properly, so anyone that tries for two or more deserves my admiration and awe.

But when it comes to official announcements and public messages in China, it seems to me that more attention should be paid to correct usage (and common sense). The flight announcements at the airport in Shanghai always begin with: “Announcing a flight from Shanghai to …” and proceed to name the flight number and destination. But why announce the departure location?  I know I am in Shanghai because I am sitting in the Shanghai airport. If I wanted to leave from Beijing but was sitting in Shanghai, I would have bought a ticket with that new airline, the one that is able to fly outside the time-space continuum (I think it’s called Quantum Air).

While I’m on the subject of air travel, here’s another term I hear frequently: “equipment reallocation” as in “we regret to inform you that the flight will be delayed because of ‘equipment reallocation.'”  I assume it means that my plane is being “reallocated” to another route and not being turned into a youth hostel; or a two-lane bowling alley; or a very thin Karaoke bar. If so, I would prefer to hear the honest, if brutal, truth: “Attention, we are pleased to announce that flight number 5 will now be on time because we have reallocated the airplane from somewhere else and have given it to you. Look over at gate 10 and you will see the poor schlubs without an airplane who have been told that it has been ‘reallocated.’ You should feel vastly superior to them. Altogether now … nyah-nyah-na-boo-boo!”

Nyah-nyah-na-boo-boo may not be found in Webster’s, but then a lot of what I see written in Shanghai falls outside the norm. Especially in advertising. I once saw a banner that was wrapped around a building; in English, in three meter tall type, touting a new restaurant called “Bread and Butter.”  However, the syllables of the last word had been separated so, when viewed from one angle, it said “Bread and Butt.”  Yes, excessive starch will cause one to gain weight, but do they need to rub it in?

At a local hypermart, I remember seeing two signs posted above a range of disposable goods — paper plates, wooden chopsticks and the like. The sign in Chinese said: 一次性用品, literally “one-time use items”. However, the English sign said: “A Time Sex Thing” (the character 性 is sometimes used to refer to sex). I guess the translator had been taught that sex sells.

In the end, the real heroes of this story are the well-meaning citizens of this great country – my friends, neighbors and colleagues – who are subject to the abuse we foreigners rain on their beloved language. I constantly mess up my tones and call someone’s mother a horse. I never remember the difference between “orphanage” (孤儿院 gu er yuan) and “kindergarten” (幼儿园 (you er yuan), a distinction that is important to most parents. I also can never remember the difference in writing “buy” (买) and “sell” (卖), bringing no end of frustration to my financial controller who does know the difference between “revenue” and “expense”.

So it works both ways. Chinese amuse themselves with the linguistic mistakes of foreigners, and vice versa. Such is human nature. For which I am truly sorry. But a sign I saw in a local teahouse sums it up best: “Humanistic refreshments cannot usually be located but here”.

Patience is a virtue … and is often in short supply in China

When I first came to China – back in the days before everyone had a mobile phone surgically attached to their ear and lusted after automobiles – I was rather naïve. Like most Midwestern Americans, I grew up believing that if I dug a hole deep enough, I would come out in China. I also believed that I was a connoisseur of Chinese food because I regularly ate my Swedish grandmother’s chow mein.

On arrival, however, I realized my ignorance of Chinese culture was bottomless – if I dug a hole deep enough I would just get dirty and Grandma’s chow mein functioned better as tile grout than it did as sustenance. So I went in search of knowledge. My first mentor was a former university acquaintance whom I met when he was a visiting scholar at my university in the US. When I got to China, I tracked him down and landed on him like a fly on your lunchtime gong bao ji ding. Each time we met I would pepper him with questions, trying to get at the “secret” of Chinese culture, that one swing-thought that would guarantee my complete understanding of this ancient civilization. Our conversation ranged from the esoteric – the Confucian foundations of modern society – to the practical – how to make coffee in pre-Starbuck’s China (which, if memory serves, required grinding tree root, adding pencil shavings and squeezing it through a damp athletic sock).

In the end, though, the only Kung Fu Master-like statement he ever made was this: “Kent, if you want to understand China, you must know what it means to be patient.” Which sounded both cool and logical; after all, a country with thousands of years of history knows that things take time. To better grasp the profundity of this concept I formed the following suppositions: China is old, therefore it is patient; America is young, therefore it is brash and impatient. Cool.

But over time, I discovered that this, like most generalizations, was only partially true. Chinese people are patient in some things; in others they are the most impatient people in the world. Attempt to board any form of public transportation – bus, subway, airplane, train – and be prepared to become a human speed bump if you don’t flow with the anxious crowd. There are no lines; no taking turns. The doors open, heads go down, feet start moving and the devil-takes-the-hindmost.

Ever try to board an elevator here? It is an accepted practice to punch the “close door” button the very second passengers enter or exit the car. Indeed, you can always identify the “close door” button by the finger-shaped indent caused by excessive use. If your timing is right, you might even get extra points for clipping the heel of their shoe. What is this irrational fear of open elevator doors? Is everyone here an agoraphobe who can’t wait to shut themselves into a tiny box with twenty other people? Contrarian that I am, when I happen to be standing near the buttons, I purposefully do not push the close door button and casually block others from doing so. Call me evil, but I enjoy watching everyone squirm.

Airplane travel is host to any number of impatient acts. Just before the plane touches down, people jump up and haul their bags from the overhead storage area like they are sky-surfing in a big metal tube with a carry-on slapped on their back. When the plane docks, the crowd pushes ahead as if the jetway might suddenly be pulled back leaving stragglers stranded on the plane. And so the herd pushes on, up the ramp, into the terminal and on to the people mover where … they abruptly stand still, letting the equipment do the work. Why? I honestly don’t know!  Maybe they are husbanding their strength for the next assault?

As for me, well, I’ve learned to hang back, sitting calmly in my seat until the scrum passes, then nonchalantly amble out of the plane. By the time I reach the people mover, I am already going faster than those that emerged before me. And – bonus! – I am not bleeding.

My last example of impatience in China also comes from the transportation sector. When I drive along a residential street, someone is bound to leave the sidewalk and suddenly cross the street in front of my car. What is up with that?? Do people value their own lives so little? Do they think my reaction time is as good as an F1 driver? Are they thinking at all? Do they not think: “Hey… my ancestors have been around here for thousands of years and have built one of the most enduring cultures in the history of our species. I am going to wait three nanoseconds until that pale, nervous looking guy driving the van goes by me and then cross the street”? I’m just asking here.

Yes, the irony is apparent. Here I am, an American, harping on the importance of patience in China. We Americans invented fast food, the microwave oven, the One Minute Manager and neo-con regime change. I thank my local friends for their patience in not giving me the butt-whooping I deserve.