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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”.

What’s in a name?

I was at a restaurant the other day and wanted to get the server’s attention. Now the standard etiquette at food establishments in China – particularly local ones – is that you are allowed (nay, even encouraged) to raise your voice and yell for service, yell as if you were three pints into a prime day at the Hong Kong Sevens. So, employing vocal chords that have been known to shatter glass, I shouted “Hey…xiao jie” and a young lady immediately appeared at my table.

To differentiate myself from the other louts screaming for the wait staff, I thought it wise to establish a degree of intimacy. Xiao jie (“Miss”) is too formal, and I looked to her name tag. I discovered her name was 57103. “Hmm…” I thought to myself, “this is interesting; a moniker not normally found in the ranks of the venerated Zhang’s, Wang’s and Liu’s of the lao bai xing” (literally, “old hundred names”).

How sad, in a land where naming people is such an arduous and time consuming task, to be reduced to a number. This is a minor tragedy, I thought. Chinese names are beautiful, rich in symbolism and possess a sense of history that places the bearer securely within the culture. I’m sure that the waitress’s parents took great care to choose a suitable name for their daughter. They likely searched through the family records, considered the time of her birth, and came up with a name that reflected their hopes and dreams. What infamy, then, to be reduced to number 57103.

Finding an appropriate Chinese name for a foreigner is, perhaps, even more difficult than it is for the native-born. Many opt for the easy way out – simply translating the sound of their name into Chinese phonemes, with interesting results. I knew a guy named William Wasserstrom, a name that is tough enough in English but was rendered ridiculous in Chinese: Wei Li Ya Mu – Wa Su Er Su Tu Mu. People had to take several breaths and pack a lunch to get through that name. It sounds like a Shanghainese rapper with Tourette’s Syndrome. Then, too, the characters used to render a name like that are devoid of meaning. If one were to translate old William’s name, literally, it would mean “Future Power Oh! Wood – Wow! Custom Ear Revive Earth Eye.” Frank Zappa couldn’t have named a kid worse. Most foreigners don’t mind, but if you want to belong here then you should find a “real” name.

My Chinese name was chosen by a committee formed by several of my closest Chinese friends. Their mission: to find a name that matched my personality. The most appropriate, “Donkey-Face-Monkey-Boy”, does not translate well in Chinese so instead they chose 高 德凯 or Gao Dekai. Gao is a traditional family name, but it also means “tall” and alludes to my height. De means “morality” and Kai, “victory”, which says something about my successful struggles with sin (or, more likely, pokes fun at my failures with same). In short, Gao Dekai is a nice, solid, very Chinese name.

On the other hand, some of my Chinese friends and acquaintances have been given unfortunate names in English. In the days when I was a teacher, one class boasted a Lincoln, a Washington and a Hemingway. Lincoln and Washington failed their history class, and Hemingway got a “D”’ in English Composition.

Others sport meteorological monikers: I know a Snow, a Rain and even a Breeze (and I’m acquainted with a fellow who should be named Earthquake for his ability to kill a conversation at a party). I know a Pony Wang, who fancies himself an urban cowboy, and a Moonbeam Liu which sounds rather sexy, but not for a guy, which he happens to be. Another acquaintance, Dolphin Xiu (aka “Flipper”), is exceptionally smart and happy-go-lucky — his name seems to fit. And for all I know he might like to swim and eat seafood. I had a client once whose family name was Gu and he chose the English name Green. I’ll pause a moment and let you figure that one out.

Every once in a while, my Chinese friends ask me to help choose an English name for themselves or even their child. This makes me feel very uncomfortable. The responsibility is too great and a wrong choice can mark a person with bad karma for life. I have trouble choosing a necktie, never mind something as serious as a name.
I once knew a young man surnamed Wang, who approached me one day and said: “Mr. Kent, I want you to help me pick an English name.”

“OK,” I said, my voice aquiver, “have you anything in mind?”

“Well, I like the name Satellite,” he said, with a proud grin.

“Um… ‘Satellite Wang’? Are you sure about that?” I asked.

“Yes. Satellites are very modern and are very strong. And I want to be modern and strong. Besides, my best friend said it was a good name for me.”

“Who is your best friend?” I asked, fearing the answer.

“Oh, his name is Auditorium Li.”

You know, somehow 57103 sounds like she should be counting her blessings.

Isn’t it ironic?

Of all the mind-numbing, pride-swallowing, ulcer-inducing challenges I face in China every day, being misunderstood is probably the greatest one. I’m not talking about basic Chinese language skill – I’m all too aware that, despite the polite compliments of my hosts, my Chinese is roughly the equivalent of a primate using sign language (hence the name of this blog). No, I’m referring to the difficulties arising from the cultural context of meaning, the attitudes, motivations and mental gymnastics behind the words. I usually can understand what someone is saying in China but I am often confused as to what they mean.  In short, I get the lyrics but not the music, the character behind the character that is speaking that makes meaning, well, mean!

Call me unique (or odd, strange and socially inept, if you must), but a big part of the character of my communication style is defined by the liberal use of sarcasm and irony. These two qualities seem in short supply in China, which is why I’m so often misunderstood. When I employ sarcasm and irony my intention is to be humorous. But, as my teenagers so often remind me, what I find funny is often not funny to other people, and this is especially true in China.  The Chinese sense of humor, it seems to me, is founded upon an altogether different base. Rather than sarcasm and irony, Chinese humor is often based on puns and historical allusion. This would make sense because the Chinese language is built from a limited set of homonyms and the Chinese people have several thousands of years of history to draw from.

But you know what? Being funny in China is a lot of hard work because both the humorist and the audience must be both clever and subtle. This is why I far prefer irony and sarcasm for the simple reason that it does not require me to be all that clever or subtle. What’s more, my preference allows me to save face if my comments fall flat. For example, say I see a movie with a friend. I think it stinks but I am not sure whether he agrees:

Me: “Well…that was a great movie!” (said with a slight sneer)

Friend: (picking up on the possible irony) “Really? I loved it!”

Me: (backpedaling furiously so as not to offend with an original opinion) “No … I meant it … great film. Very, very moving. I meant that the popcorn was inferior.”

See the beauty in this? No commitment, no brain cells used, nothing to offend or annoy. Of course, there’s no original or creative thinking here, but originality and creativity are far over-valued. Those of you who’ve eaten Western-style fast food know that “creative” is only used by their ad executives and “original” is a style of deep-fat fried chicken.

Which brings me back to my point: attempting irony in Chinese just does not work. I have tried repeatedly to introduce it into my speech but all I end up with is a blank stare from my erstwhile listeners. However, behind the blank stare I can guess what my conversational partner is thinking: “If I just maintain eye contact, maybe he will think I understand and am even interested in what he has to say …”

But this, I think, is so sad and is such a waste of good material because in my humble opinion, China is rich in ironic situations.

Take the sidewalks, for example, which are largely unused because folks prefer to walk in the middle of the street in China. Why don’t they use the sidewalk, you might ask? Well, for one thing, sidewalks here are often difficult to navigate because of the trees planted smack in the middle of them. To negotiate the sidewalk, then, requires the elasticity of a Super-G Olympian. Lose focus for a minute and you become an instant tree hugger, despite any lack of concern for the environment you might have. The sidewalks here are not intended for pedestrians; rather, they are for bikes, scooters and the occasional automobile, as well as Tibetans selling jewelry. The irony is that the middle of the street is often the safest place to walk, primarily because everyone expects you to be there. Ironic? Just a bit.

Then there’s the roundabout – a traffic management system that originated in the UK – designed to ease the traffic flow entering an intersection, simultaneously, from four directions. However, in the Chinese version of a roundabout, the system produces chaos where drivers merge like a lead-footed Ray Charles driving in a proton accelerator on a triple espresso buzz. The roundabout at the confluence of the Lupu bridge exit and the North-South viaduct in Shanghai, to cite but one example, requires traffic lights (and the occasional traffic cop) at rush hour to establish even a modicum of sanity.  Kinda defeats the purpose of a roundabout and makes the situation … hmmm, I don’t know … maybe kind of ironic?

Signage in China also provides the ironist with good material. Right next to the elevators outside of my office, there is a large “no smoking” sign. And next to the sign is well-used ashtray.   I saw a sign recently in a toilet stall – in both English and Chinese – that says “Electrical toilet, please do not defecate.” And I’ve seen many a family picnicking in the park next to the “Keep off the grass” sign. How can one look at things like that and not think that China is the epicenter of exaggeration; the summit of satire; the crown of contradiction; the intensity of incongruity; the steeple of sarcasm; the vertex of wit (yea … I couldn’t think of a superlative starting with “w” either).

In the end, however, the true irony is that I may be completely wrong about the Chinese; maybe they are masters of irony and sarcasm after all. Not the broad and obvious American sort, but the clever and subtle type. Why else would a culture that boasts a long, rich and varied history insist that any foreigner who can put two Chinese words together and use chopsticks well enough transport a bit of food to his mouth be called a “China Expert”? Ironic?  Yea … just a bit.


License to Kill

I’ve had a couple of requests for an article I wrote for a local Shanghai magazine a few years ago about getting my driver’s license.  The Chinese media – even English language publications – are all owned by the Party and are managed by the Ministry of Propaganda (a group that needs some help in re-branding their title to approach a bit more obliquely their mission statement).  I wrote for this publication for a number of years but was summarily fired by the good Propaganda people for (and I’m not kidding here) “writing about the behavior of the Chinese people.”  I guess I was welcome to be surrounded by 1.3 billion of them, but I couldn’t write about them.  In any case, one of my first columns for this magazine was one I wrote after getting my driver’s license.  I’ve had a few requests to republish that here and will do so below.  You can be the judge of whether or not I should be able hang on to this blogging gig.


A wise person once said, “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.”  However, I think they were wrong.  Shanghai walks like a modern international city and quacks like one too…but underneath the fluffy down of its subways, Starbucks and stock exchanges, Shanghai retains the inner core of a bureaucratic nightmare, most often benign but a pain in the hind quarters nonetheless.

To support this argument, I bring as my first (and only) witness, what in English is called the “Shanghai Transportation Police Headquarters, Vehicle Administration Bureau” (what Americans would call the Department of Motor Vehicles).  I ventured there yesterday to get my China driver’s license and I suspected, even before setting foot in the place, that it would result in confusion, headache and a great story.  It turns out I was right on all counts.

Automobile sales are growing at a faster pace in China than almost anywhere else in the world.  In bigger cities like Shanghai, rush hour moves slower than a Democratic tax refund.  Not surprisingly, traffic accidents in China are increasing exponentially as thousands of new drivers hit the streets (and each other) every month. It is rumored that every day in Shanghai nearly 20 people are killed in traffic accidents.  Let me repeat that in case you missed it…that is 20 people…dead…every day!

The irony of the STPHVAB office is that they are building a new elevated highway around it and drivers have to break several traffic laws to even get in the place.  On the way from my office to their office, the taxi drove the wrong way on a one way street, went against two traffic lights and caught some air when we went too fast over a sewer line that had not been completely filled in.  This was not an auspicious beginning to the day.

The traffic bureau office is actually a complex of about 9 buildings housing nearly 3,000 workers.  Chinese government entities are famous for over-employment and under-productivity (what government isn’t?) so this was no immediate surprise.  I went to the office in Building # 1 where I was given a piece of paper that told me to go to Building # 6.  I originally thought that this first office was The Office for Telling People to Go to Building # Six but I was wrong…it was really the epicenter of the entire operation and one needed to return there after each foray to outbuildings to find out where to go next.  It was, in fact, The Office of Telling People Where to Go.  Now wouldn’t that be a great job??

The buildings were not numbered and I found Building # 6 by looking for the most people wandering around the complex looking for Building #6, a communal, Zen-like approach to orientation.  I paid a fee equal to a few dollars and got a checklist of all the rooms in Building #6 I had to go to.  But first, I had to go to a numberless building across the way to get my picture taken, the results of which proved that no matter where it is in the world, everyone’s driver’s license photo looks like they were drunk, brain-dead, unemployed and destitute when they had it taken.  Or maybe that’s just me.

Photos and checklist in hand, I went back to the third floor in Building #6 where, upon filling out more forms and paying another fee, I was ushered into a hall with a series of rooms off of it, each room housing a different examination of some kind.  But I am not talking about a simple written examination (that will come later)…these were physical examinations of all types.  They took my blood pressure, did a hearing test, checked my height and weight, hooked me up to an EKG machine to confirm I had a heart and gave me an eye test (which the guy ahead of me nearly failed and—I am NOT making this up—said in frustration under his breath “I am a pilot…how can I fail an eye exam?!”  I decided, then and there, to walk to Beijing the next time I had to go: I was certainly not going to fly with a chance of getting that guy as a pilot and I wasn’t going to drive either because he could be on the road on his way to work!)

They finally gave me a test where I had to pull on a chain coming out of the floor and then squeeze the handle of a machine.  I am still a bit confused about that last one, how it could disqualify me: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kedl, but you have the grip strength of a six year old girl with the flu…we cannot allow you to drive.”

These tests were the most arduous part of the process, in part because there were probably 50 other people trying to complete the same checklist at the same time.  A brief survey of them, however, revealed that, while they were all anxious to get their driver’s licenses, none of them actually owned a car.  This is quite common and there is a Chinese phrase describing these types of people, “Ben Ben Zhu”, literally the “Group of the License” (and, by reference, ONLY a license and no car).  I guess they do it because they can or because, some day, they will purchase, lease, rent, borrow, steal or be given a car.  Some people collect stamps, others collect driver’s licenses.

The part of the experience then came that I had been dreading…the written examination.  Who does not still get the flop-sweats remembering their written exam when they got their license at age16?  When I first arrived at The Office of Telling People Where to Go, I was given, to review, a study guide of 100 questions with the correct answers and was told that 20 of them would be on my examination and I was required to pass with 80%.  In between physical exams, I spent furtive moments cramming my brain with useless information I would never actually have to use (cue flashbacks to graduate school).

I was lucky enough to be able to take the exam in English, but it was really no help at all…both the questions and their multiple-choice answers were completely unintelligible, as if an off-the-cuff speech from George W. Bush had been translated into Swahili and then back into English: neither the original nor the two translations make any sense!  I kept a copy of the study guide as a souvenir and I repeat now, for your own edification, some of the actual questions that were on the exam (in all their Chinglish-y glory!) and the answers that I wish I could have given:

Q: If you get in or out of an alley, cross a level crossing of a railway, make a sharp turn, or pass through a narrow road, a narrow bridge or a tunnel at the speed of 20 km/hr, you:

A: …are lucky to be alive.  The same goes for reading this question…if you exceed a 20 km/hr reading speed, you are sure to miss the point, as I just did.


Q: What causes most accidents?

A: Driving.


Q: If there is no causality between the violating act of the traffic accident’s party and the traffic accident, the party:

A: …will go on as planned, with even louder music and more food and drink.  Being absolved of any responsibility in a traffic accident is a reason to party!!


Q: When the party of the traffic accident maintains that he refuses to accept as final, how soon may the party apply for remaintaining to the upper-class public security organs after receiving the maintaining statement of traffic accident responsibility?

A: Huh?  Can you repeat the question…I was not sure if you were maintaining or remaintaining something for the upper class.  Is this a trick political science question about class struggle?


Q: If convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, to which public security organ must one apply?

A: The liver.


Q: In order to ensure the safety of driving, the driver with excess tiresome is not allowed to drive the car.  The excess tiresome means to drive every day over

A: …the roads I traveled to get here to take this tiresome examination.


Q: If smoking, eating or performing any other actions that would endanger traffic safety while driving, the driver of a motor vehicle should be penalized 5 Yuan, true or false?

A: Wait a minute…what?  You mean that I can get pulled over for scarfing a Ho-Ho while driving?  Well, there goes my breakfast time.


Q: When the traffic police stretches his right arm horizontally with palm of hand facing the front and with the left side of the body facing your car, that is:

A: …a signal that he is about to begin the traditional Shanghai Traffic Police Hula Dance and Fire Breathing.  We recommend pulling over and watching this time-honored art form (no pictures, tips appreciated).


Q: When you are driving in a normal way, a traffic policed shows a stop indicating sign, you should:

A: This is a trick question in two ways… stop signs are intended as friendly recommendations and are not to be taken seriously and, besides, NO ONE drives in a “normal” way in Shanghai.

I passed with flying colors.  OK, I barely passed with an 80% and only after begging the examiner for answers to some of the trickier questions (she did not know what “remaintaining” meant either and didn’t speak any English besides).  I got another piece of paper with instructions to go to another room where I paid another fee to get another piece of paper telling me to go to another room in another building where I paid a fee to get another piece of paper to go to another room to get my completed license (an M.C. Escher painting written into a government bureaucracy…it just goes ‘round and ‘round!).  However, I emerged from that building the proud owner of a Shanghai driver’s license, giving me all the rights and privileges of every other loony behind the wheel of a car.

The more attentive reader—if you have had to patience to get this far in the narrative—will have noticed that, although I was poked, prodded and examined as to my physical state and my ability to read broken English, not once was I asked to get behind the wheel of a vehicle and actually prove I could drive the danged thing.  Does this sound strange to you too?  It did to me too, at first; however, after further consideration, I think they are on to something.  Anyone who has eyesight like a hawk, the grip strength of a bull and knows precisely when to remaintain to the proper upper-class security bureau will do just fine on the roads.  No one else has actually learned how to drive here either.

Finally … some instructions that make sense

You know those signs in small spaces – airplanes, elevators, busses, subways – that give you instructions for what to do in an emergency?  They are always so rational, so calm … in fact so UNLIKE anything I would be in any crisis situation.  I found this sign in an elevator in Beijing.  Carefully read the second line … I don’t know about you, but if an emergency broke out in an elevator, “keep cool and pray” is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard!