Monday, September 23, 2013


Hey, do you know how Chinese people name their kids? They throw them down the stairs and whatever sound the kid makes going down is what he is named: Bing Chong Ching.

Such ‘jokes’, usually told with a slightly uncomfortable but fully malicious snicker serve to enhance and perpetuate the stereotype that the Chinese are barbaric, stupid, incomprehensible and uncultured. As a blogger living in China I have dedicated my writing career and, to some extent my life to demystifying this culture and undoing these cruel stereotypes.

It is natural for humans to mock, deride, belittle, combat or fear that which we do not understand. China and her culture, having only recently made herself available to The West, naturally receives and is the target of much misunderstanding, speculation, awe and wonderment. I side with the latter two.

After my first trip here in 2008, I was completely enamored with China and all things Chinese. Upon my return stateside, I would go to friends’ houses with my camera’s memory cards and, if permitted would expound on and glorify every single aspect of what I had witnessed in the 3 weeks I spent here.

I recall visiting some friends, ‘deep Texans’ you might call them. They had never set foot on any non-American soil, indeed never ventured outside of Texas. Under normal circumstances they are kind, tolerant and intelligent. Imagine my surprise when, among the OOOHHHs, AAAHHHs and gasps of surprise one of them said: why do they have to be so different? Why can’t they be more like us?

I did my very best to not choke on my disbelief. Surely she couldn’t have said that, right? I had to have misunderstood! How can a person who is American wish for one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures to be ‘more like us’ when we, as a culture have only been around for 237 years?

I sure have my work cut out for me, dispelling myth and misunderstanding. It seems that there is no end to the mockery and misapprehension. No matter what, people are still going to fear and/or ridicule what they do not understand. When it comes to China, cruel jokes, stereotypes and ethnocentrism will probably be the order of the day long after my fingers quit hitting the keys. The best I can do is try to educate and/or correct negative impressions and not tolerate malicious humor.

But Chinglish… Chinglish is a different matter. Chinglish can be downright funny.

I’ve stated before that everything from street signs to menus are written in Chinese and in English. All Chinese are compelled to learn a second language, and that language is English. Most Chinese assume that every foreigner is an English speaker and they do their very best to communicate in the foreigner’s purported language. I respect and appreciate all that. However, in the rush to get onboard that international trend of duplicating everything into English for the comfort and ease of foreigners, it seems some translations… well, you could say meaning gets lost in translation, to borrow a cliché.

Chinglish. The Chinese are well aware that they make many mistakes when speaking or writing in English, and they are ashamed of it, even though individual Chinglish mistakes are probably not intentional or even detected. While English speaking nations laugh at Chinese attempts to translate, the Chinese bow their heads and vow to learn more, study harder and translate correctly.

I too am guilty of laughing when I read any Chinglish. For one because it is so darn funny but also because, now that I can read Chinese, I wonder how in the world they come up with some of those translations!

A fire extinguisher, literally ‘extinguish fire bottle’ in Chinese somehow became ‘hand grenade’. None of the characters on the sign indicate ‘hand’, let alone ‘grenade’. I wonder how they came up with that translation.

Here is one I’ve seen quite often, regarding walking on grass. The literal translation of the four characters displayed on the sign is ‘small heart slippery topple’. Somehow that translated into ‘Slip and fall down carefully!’

Nuance is to blame for a lot of these mistranslations. By no literal stretch could ‘small heart’ become ‘caution’. But if you think of someone’s little love, perhaps a mother for her child or a burly man for his delicate bride, suddenly ‘small heart’ becomes something worth protecting… hence the ‘caution’ derivation. The rest of the sign does convey the intended meaning, namely that one might slip and fall if not careful.

Did I forget to tell you that the Chinese love adjectives and adverbs? Hence ‘careful’ becomes ‘carefully’, even in general conversation.  

More often than not the Chinese language conveys meaning through graphic impression rather than actual words. The character for ‘person’ looks like the legs of a person walking: . , the character for ‘woman’ could be interpreted as a female crossing her legs while holding out her skirts.

While there are over five thousand drawn characters, actual sounds number only in the hundreds. Context and tone sometimes gives no clue as to intended meaning. It is common, during conversation with a Mandarin speaker to ask which meaning any particular sound represents. In cases like that the speaker will pose the intended meaning by referencing a more popular use of the sound.

For example: my Chinese name is GAO LE SI 高乐思. The first character means ‘tall’. The second one could mean ‘music’ or ‘happy’ depending on context and/or pronunciation. The final one ‘SI’ could mean all manner of things, from ‘s**t’, through ‘silk’ to ‘dead’, but is intended to mean ‘thought’.

You can see that it is very important to convey proper meaning. If I let people fill in the blanks about my name, they might assume I’m called Tall Happy Crap. Or Tall Music Dead. My standard introduction goes something like this: “Hello, my name is Gao Le Si, the ‘Le’ meaning ‘happy’ and the ‘Si’ that means ‘thought’.” Rather lengthy, but necessary. The added bonus to this introduction is that all my Mandarin friends nod their heads in appreciation that I understand the vagaries of their language well enough to get specific about the meaning of my name.

Another way in which meaning is communicated is by drawing the character. Often you will see people embroiled in conversation use their index fingers to draw characters in the palm of their hand or on a surface close by.

One character that is most often misused and mis-translated is ‘GAN’. It is a simple character: 2 small horizontal lines and one longish vertical line: . It is supposed to depict a shield, and can mean anything from ‘dry’ to ‘empty’, from ‘futile’ to ‘do’ and from ‘main part’ to ‘having to deal with’. Very versatile, this GAN.

It is also slang for the F-Bomb.

Let me disabuse you of the notion that only venerated, older, bearded Chinese men wearing silk robes and stroking their sparse mustaches while sitting tailor fashion on silk cushions are experienced, wise, capable and trusted enough to translate. The average Chinglish author is mid-twenties with an English Major Bachelor’s degree, fresh out of college. Someone who is more likely to use ‘Gan’ in slang form than any of its other meanings.

Thus, many restaurant menu items including Gan – intending to mean ‘main part’ or ‘having to do with’ are translated into F-Bomb. A dish consisting mainly of duck becomes ‘F**K the duck”. A delicacy involving shrimp and cabbage becomes ‘The shrimp F**Ks the cabbage’. Heavens forbid you should want something dry, or dried.

Like dry noodles. Most often noodles are served in a broth, with veggies and a little meat. One type of noodles is served dry, though. If you have any loyalty to this blog or are familiar with Hubei Province cuisine, you will know that the region’s signature dish is called Re Gan Mian. ‘Re’ meaning ‘hot’, ‘Gan’ meaning ‘dry’ and ‘Mian’ meaning ‘noodle’.

You already know that ‘Gan’ can have several meanings, including a very naughty one. Did you also know that ‘Mian’ also has several meanings? Besides ‘noodles’, ‘Mian’ can mean ‘flour’ or ‘face’. Not really sure how the same character can represent 3 such varied concepts. Not even going to venture a guess.

But now that I think about it… let’s put Re Gan Mian under the Chinglish microscope. ‘Re’ translates to ‘hot’. In English, ‘hot’ is slang for ‘sexy’ or ‘desirable’. ‘Gan’ we’ll use in its slang form. ‘Mian’ would be ‘face’ for the uninitiated (it was the first meaning I learned for that character). All this time I thought I had been enjoying a local specialty when in fact… OH! NO!!!

I’ll never be able to eat Re Gan Mian again!!! Somehow I just can’t see myself going to my favorite noodle stall and saying: “Yeah, give me a bowl of ‘Sexy F-bomb Face’ to go”. *SIGH!*    

NOTE: Credit for this entry goes to my conspirators. I had compiled a collection of Chinglish found on a Chinese website and sent it to all my friends, Chinese and Western. During our weekly chat my conspirators told me they had forwarded that compilation to some of their friends and had gotten rave reviews. It was while talking with them that I stumbled onto the Chinglish translation of my favorite noodle dish. We laughed our fool heads off, and another blog entry was born. 



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