Monday, March 5, 2012

Why? Why? And Again… Why???

It seems the longer I live in China the more mysteries and riddles I uncover. Why do the Chinese landscape a construction area before the building is done? Why do the Chinese build everything in concrete, only to tear it down 10 or twenty years later? Why do the Chinese wear jammies out in public?

Why do the Chinese, who are so distrustful of their water supply that they must boil their drinking water (or buy bottled water), then proceed to wash their food, dishes and cooking utensils in that same water that they do not feel is safe to drink?

I have no answers for these mysteries, much as I’ve tried to find any. And now, I have more things to ask ‘Why’ about.

In China, from the most rural town to the largest megalopolis, every street sign I have seen is written both in Chinese and in Pinyin (see picture). If you’ll remember, pinyin is the Romanization of the Chinese language – how that character is pronounced. You wonder: why do I ask ‘why’ about that? It is because every single person who is Chinese, no matter what their ethnicity, reads and interprets Chinese characters to mean the same thing. means ‘vehicle’ to somebody in Beijing as well as somebody from the smallest tribe. They may not pronounce it the same because of their varying dialects but each character represents the same concept across all regions and all ethnicities.

Remember, there are 58 ethnicities in China. That is a lot of different languages for one country.

If every single person who is Chinese understands what each character represents, why do they need the Romanization of the road’s name on a road sign?

A little bit of history: during the late 1940’s early ‘50’s, China underwent a massive reform. Mao Ze Dong decreed that everyone should adopt the Common Language (Mandarin Chinese, as we know it today) in addition to their tribal or ethnic dialect. Children in schools were taught in Putonghua – literally translated ‘common language’, and they were taught how to write it in characters and in Pinyin.

Today, knowledge of Pinyin is essential because that is the system used to type in Chinese. Although various applications are available, they operate essentially the same way: you type the sound that the character makes – the pinyin of the character, and a menu pops up for you to select the proper character from. If it is a compound word or phrase, such as ‘train station’, you would type in the pinyin huo che zhan (fire car station, literally translated). The popup menu would reveal the characters for that designation. You hit the space bar and voila: you have just typed ‘train station’ in Chinese.

Being as the Chinese language has some 5,000 characters and only about 350 distinctly different sounds, learning Pinyin is not as great a chore as it seems. Learning the 4 tones that enrich those sounds and give them specific meaning is a different story. Fortunately, when typing Pinyin, you don’t have to place a tone indicator on any part of the word. The popup menu will only recognize the typed in sound and you, the writer, must select the proper representative character.

As you can imagine, street signs written in Pinyin is a great help to us foreigners. For those who can’t read characters, they can still orient themselves with those street signs that are also written in Pinyin. And, this dual writing of street names actually helps me, and probably other foreigners learn more characters. It doesn’t explain why Pinyin is included on the street signs in remote regions where foreigners never go though.

And that leads me to another question. Why is there so much English in China?

As I alluded to in the Langlang Madness post (see January 2011), directional signs, traffic signs and instructional signs are all written both in Chinese and in English. Traveling down the highway on a long distance bus I see the characters 出口 – chu kou (pronounced ‘chew k-oh’), meaning ‘exit’, as in a freeway exit ramp. Directly below the characters is the word EXIT, and the Pinyin to where that exit leads. This place is decidedly foreigner-friendly!

But that doesn’t explain why, even in the smallest of Podunk towns, such signs are also in English. Foreigners never go there! Train stations out in the middle of nowhere also bear signs in English: Platform 1, Platform 2, ect., as well as caution signs and station exit signs.

Even on the train there are instructional signs in English: WC for bathroom, ‘Hot Water’ over the hot water dispenser… signs on how to set the brake, height gauges for determining whether a child should be charged a child’s fare or an adult fare, emergency system equipment, even! Why are these signs written in English?

In all my travels I’ve yet to encounter another foreigner on the train, or in a train station. Even one as large as Beijing, where there is a sizable foreigner population. When I travel on the train I cause such a stir because… well, because foreigners usually don’t ride the trains.

In a burst of inspiration I asked one of the train conductors if he sees many foreigners ride his train. He replied to the negative. Again I asserted if he EVER saw many foreigners on any train he’s ever worked on. Again he demurred. So: it seems my observations are not egocentric. In fact, very few foreigners ride trains. Yet there is verbiage on how to break a window, how to operate emergency equipment and how to set the brake, as well as where to smoke and where to put out cigarettes, where to get hot water and where to use the bathroom… all in English.

Why Pinyin on the road signs? Why English all over the country and on the trains?

I asked Sam. I asked Gary. I asked all of my Chinese friends. No one had an answer to these two questions. I searched online. I came up with a lot of interesting information that I will go back and read later, but nothing that addresses these mysteries. As a challenge, I posed the questions to my students, with the guarantee that the student who comes up with the right answer – or any answer that makes sense would earn dinner with me.

That sounds egocentric too, until you realize that the kids would LOVE the opportunity for one on one time with their foreign teacher!

And I’m still waiting to learn why…

While waiting, let me show you to what extreme the Chinese go to be ‘foreigner friendly’. At the bus station in the remote town of Shi Shou, a locale with no street lights and only one main road, I waited for my coach. There was not much English in that station. Just enough to indicate the ticket window and how to find the restrooms.

And this one, glaring example of the lengths the Chinese are going to make themselves understood to foreigners. Over each of the boarding doors was a large sign: 1 over door one, 2 over door two and so on. Below the Arabic numerals on each sign was the English word: ‘ONE’, ‘TWO’, and so on. You can see it for yourself: I’ve attached the picture.

I would say that that is going overboard to make foreigners feel welcome. Wouldn’t you?

Now, this last ‘Why?’ question: Why don’t Chinese people trust anyone?

While in Beijing, Sam got a little tired running around town, sightseeing and riding buses. He decided to nap on the bus but, before nodding off, he asked me to please wake him when we got to Wangfujing (a large shopping area). When the recorded announcement proclaimed Wangfujing to be the next stop I woke Sam up. Such a pity; he looked rather funny with his little head bobbing and his glasses askew.

He sat up after I nudged him awake. He turned to the person on his other side and asked her: “Is Wangfujing coming up?”

What did he think: that I would lie to him? Cheat him out of a few minutes sleep? Why would he have to confirm that Wangfujing is indeed the next stop?

Many times I’ve witnessed a person who is Chinese confirm, over and over again that previously given information is indeed correct. A lot of times my students will ask several passersby how to get to a destination. I can overlook that because most of my students are not indigenous to Wuhan. However, when Sam asks first one person and then the next, and five meters later stops someone else to ask the same directions and get the same information… you can see why I puzzle over this.

And this: Man wants to go to the train station. He looks at the bus itinerary, posted both at the bus station and on the side of the bus. Once he confirms, on both postings that bus # such and such does, in fact, go by the train station he will board that bus. But before paying his fare he will ask the bus driver: “Do you go to the train station?”

Was the posted information not indicative of that? Is there some major conspiracy designed to send prospective train passengers hither and yon, anywhere but the train station? Could all those signs be wrong? And… has this man not ridden that bus line before? How about all the bus passengers who have suitcases? Would that not be indicative of a bus headed to a train station?

I perpetually marvel at those who, for apparent lack of trust in their reading abilities, the printed word and the voice of experience feel compelled to reassure themselves, over and over again that they are in fact headed in the right direction.

Or, maybe they’ve been misled before. All I can do is ask: Why do they do that???

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