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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I hate traffic lights too

I had a meeting the other day in Pudong, the new(ish) part of Shanghai on the east (“dong”) side of the river (“Pu”) and was on my way back to the west side of the river where the older part of downtown Shanghai lies.  I am not sure just why but, no matter the time of day, traffic is always heavier coming into the city than going out.  I could understand if there was a rush-hour thing going on – everyone going one way in to work in the morning and the other way going out at night.  But no, traffic is always bad coming in.  Where do all the cars go that come into the city … do they go out, eventually?  If so, when?  At night, like a teenager tiptoeing home stealthily after curfew? If they don’t, where do they go?  Is it like socks in the clothes dryer – put two pairs in and 3 individual socks come out, none of them matching?

Anyway, I digress … so I was in a taxi and we came through the tunnel and then only had a couple of kilometers to go to get to my office. Suddenly, the taxi driver veered into the lane to get on the elevated highway which, of course, was more like an elevated used car lot without the clowns, balloons and hot dogs for the kiddies – cars were bumper-to-bumper and completely motionless.

“Um … why are you getting on the highway?” I asked, very politely (rule #1: Don’t poke the bear if he’s driving a cab in Shanghai).  “My office is really close … just take the streets.”

“No way,” he said, “there are too many traffic lights.”

“Uh … yea, but at least the traffic is moving between the lights.”

“Nope.  I hate traffic lights.”

Oddly, I hear that a lot from taxi drivers in Shanghai … they all have this preternatural aversion to traffic lights.  When I first came to Shanghai in the late 1980s, there were, maybe, four taxis in the entire city; rather, the public bus ruled the road, like some lumbering brontosaurus ready to devour the mammals newly emerged from the primordial slime. (Warning: if some dinosaur geek sends a comment that my metaphor doesn’t work because brontosauruses were plant-eating and, therefore, would not eat mammals, I will delete it and with malice aforethought).  Traffic signals were kind of iffy back then – if they actually worked, no one knew if traffic would actually stop for them – so the authorities installed traffic cops.

I don’t know about you but, until I came to China, the only traffic cop I’d ever seen was the one who yelled “Stop” at Frosty the Snowman (non-Americans, don’t ask … just Google it). To me these men (and the occasional woman) were heroes, boldly standing in the middle of the maelstrom of rushing vehicles, most of which had loose steering, questionable braking systems and brand-spanking-new drivers, the Traffic Trifecta. The traffic cops coordinated their hand motions with the traffic lights, like some early version of Dance Dance Revolution, and, for the most part, drivers obeyed them.  When the traffic cops called it a night around 9 p.m., of course, everyone completely ignored the traffic lights and it became Dante’s Seventh Ring Road of Hell.

It’s different today and most drivers will stop for lights … but it’s clear that they don’t like it.  Most traffic lights in China have countdown mechanisms, telling you how many seconds you have to wait for it to turn again … and as the counter creeps down into the single digits drivers will rev their engines and slide slowly up against the bumper of the car in front of them, fearing that even the slightest gap might encourage queue-jumpers to insert themselves into the space. When the light does turn, there is a collective stomping of the accelerator, blasting a hole in ones eardrums and the ozone layer, and the cars are off on a steeple-chase to find their place among the lines painted on the road which drivers usually treat merely as good advice, like being asked to recycle or wipe down the equipment at the gym when you’re done.  By the time some semblance of order is resumed, everyone pulls up to the next traffic light which, instead of being timed with its siblings along the same street is rather synched with some acid jazz inflected disco beat played by tone-deaf musicians in an alternative dimension and has just reached the downbeat of the red light … and the game starts all over.

Hmmm, on second thought, I think I hate traffic lights too … they control your driving and tell you what to do. It’s not about speed, man … it’s about freedom! So I’ll take the elevated highway where I can breathe the sweet air of vehicular liberty and feel the wind of driving independence blowing through my hair.  Of course, I’ll have to stick my head in front of the air conditioning to feel that wind because creeping along at the speed of glacial ice melt doesn’t force much air into the car.

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