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”.

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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.

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