May 26, 2007

English, with Chinese characteristics

Filed under: language — Kim @ 6:30 pm

A few recent readings have got me thinking again about Chinglish.

First off there was a particularly choice example of the kind of comical translation catastrophe we’ve all come to know and love in China. PeerSee are good at spotting these, and this one’s a classic

wale wank

And, as they say,

Blue whales are reputed to have the largest penises in the animal kingdom. Just knowing this causes performance anxiety for them. Sometimes you need to call in a professional.

Then there was a recent Guardian Education article which had this opening gambit

“I this essay focus on big developings in the colloquialisms of the Englishes,” begins a submission from one of your students. You might admire the linguistic verve and try to focus on the substance of the argument, but what about when it comes to grading?

According to an important report released today by Demos, ‘As You Like It: Catching up in an age of Global English’, any negative response you might have to this student’s use of the English language would be an indicator of a much bigger problem: a deep-rooted ‘linguistic imperialism’ that will ultimately lead to the UK’s economic decline and shrinking role in the world. The made-up example here is actually a typical piece of what’s known as Chinglish – a variety of English affected by the very different sentence structure and rules of grammar used in Chinese languages that is used to one extent or another by millions of Chinese speakers of English.

And finally there was this analyis of Peter Hessler’s latest book, Oracle Bones

He might just be the only Western writer ever to squeeze literary effect from the mangled English produced by his ex-students – carefully deployed, these extracts offer windows into the dreams and pressure points of the upcountry soul. Best of the lot is William Jefferson Foster: his English is hot, crude and spiky like Sichuan beef stew.

Different samples, different issues. A good laugh, an academic Aunt Sally argument, and a fair observation that literature should be concerned with rendering and not judging.

As for my offering, well, I was recently asked to check a popular Chinese published English idioms book. It’s basically a sound book, but I was asked to proofread for anything that might sound outdated, unnatural, or outright wrong.

Correcting the grammar is easy enough, but some of the stylistic infelicities are puzzling and left me wondering what, if anything to do. What, for example, would you make of the following dialogue?

A: Is your mother all right?
B: She’s feeling better now. Thank you for taking my mom to the hospital.
A: It’s a pleasure.

I felt a little linguistically queasy after reading that one. “It’s a pleasure” taking your mother to hospital…well, I don’t think a native speaker would say it, but is there any point correcting it?

then this

A: He must have quarreled with his wife very often.
B: Why? How can you draw such a conclusion?
A: Because he’s very easily agitated in our company.
B: He’s a neighbour of mine. I’m under the impression that he and his wife live a very happy life.

This dialogue is close to the kind of thing that inspired Ionesco to write “The Bald Prima Donna”, a play he wrote after learning English from textbooks full of stilted dialogues. But it does have a certain kind of antiquated charm to it. I can imagine a couple of Victorian mathemeticians conducting this exchange, and why correct that? I would like to encourage old-fashioned polysyllabic courtesy.

Same goes for this one

A: Can you oblige me with an umbrella?
B: I’m sorry, but I don’t have one myself.
A: Thanks anyway.

Yes, please oblige me…haven’t heard that for a while and it needs to be revived. 1 billion speakers should do it.

ez nekem kinaiul!

Filed under: language — Kim @ 5:03 pm

Volt amikor eleg jol beszeltem magyarul, de kezdtem elfelejteni. Hat, nem is nagy meglepetes az, mert itt Dalianban nem talalkoztam magyarokkal es ugy erzem magam hogy nem is fogok. Na, az a kerdesem hogy van-e egy magyar beszelo olvaso, talan kinaban, aki segitenni fog. Szeretnek ujra magyarul beszelni, szoval nyugaton irjatok valamit nekem.


What was that all about? Any guesses? (Which language?)

May 22, 2007

Ladyboy, Ladyboy

Filed under: asia,culture,Thailand — Kim @ 5:58 pm

So far, almost every time I have mentioned to a Chinese person that I lived in Thailand for a couple of years I get the same response…Ah! Thailand has many “mangirl/boygirl/boylady/ladyman” and, just occasionally, “Ladyboy”.

This is something that Peter Hessler picked up on in “River Town” (yes, I love that book) and he saw it as one of those Chinese “buttons you could push”. Here’s the extract

foreigners always talked about how difficult it was to understand China, and often this was true, but there were also many ways in which the people’s ideas were remarkably uniform and predictable. There were buttons you could push – Hitler, Jews, the Japanese, the Opium wars, Tibetans, Taiwan – and 90 percent of the time you could predict the precise reaction, including specific phrases people would use…if you asked about Thailand, virtually all of them would say the exact same thing, that the Thais are famous for their “renyao”, or transvestites. (p235)

I am not going to say yet whether ladyboys push my buttons or not, but it must be a bit odd for Thais in China, or in contact with Chinese, to have their whole country indelibly and almost exclusively associated with ladyboys. And, also, it must be said, the second thing that springs to a Chinese mind when it comes to Thailand is probably hookers. Closely followed by Elephants, Durian and Mangosteen these days perhaps.

As some of you will know, my wife is Chinese, and one of the first things she wanted to do when we moved to Bangkok was to see a ladboy show. As any kathoey cabaret connoisseur will tell you, the best shows are in that surreally sleazy seaside town of Pattaya. So off we went for a weekend of sun, sand, sleaze, and ladyboy action!

We arrived in Pattaya late evening, and as we walked to our guesthouse past the endless rows of beer bars full of bar girls my wife drily commented “Now I can see the famous product of Thailand.” Which is not quite fair; Pattaya is about as representative of Thailand as Shanghai’s Maoming Lu is of China.

Anyway, next day we had a great lunch (Thai food!), kicked back on the beach, and come the evening, it’s ladyboy time! The two big Cabarets are “Tiffanys” and “Alcazar” and we tossed for it and got “Tiffanys”. If I remember well, the show cost 400 baht each (about 10 dollars) and it was a great show. The “singing” is all lip-synched but the dancing, the choreography and the costumes are fantastic…imaginative and obviously a labour of love…and of course the main point, the frisson d’être, of the show is watching these (for the most part) amazingly beautiful and feminine boys and thinking, “Jesus…that’s a dude!” and having tingly misgivings about sexuality. Or maybe that’s just me, hem hem.

And, as luck would have it, my wife and I were seated next to a coachload of mainland Chinese. Yes, Thailand is on one of the biggest circuits for Chinese foreign tourists, the notorious “SingMaThai”, (SingaporeMalaysiaThailand) where mainlanders get bussed around some tropical exoticism. A day in Bangkok on a SingMaThai package usually involves a visit to the snake and crocodile farm, shopping, the Tiger farm (where baby tigers are suckled by pigs and “looked after” by Africans dressed in full Disney-does-Africa regalia), shopping, more shopping, and then a ladyboy show in the evening. Anyway, after a few songs, one in Chinese, one in Korean, and one in English, the couple next to us started a loud conversation that set my wife a-snorting. One of these guys, let’s call him Mainlander 1 had obviously been snoozing when their tourguide had been giving them the background info on the coach. Luckily, Mainlander 2 was a bit more clued in and was ready to set him straight, so to speak.

Mainlander 1 “Where are these singers from? They can sing our Chinese well!”
Mainlander 2 “They’re not really singing! It’s lip-synched”
M 1 “Ah! Oh, I see! Bu hao yi si!”
M2 “And you know they’re not women, right?”
M1 “What do you mean they’re not women?”
M2 “This is a ladyboy show! They’re renyao/transvestites”
M1 “What! These ones! No way!” etc etc…
M2 “Ah, so you like them do you?”
M1 “No, no, I mean yes, but no”…a bit later “Ah, yes, I see now, obviously men”

When the show ends you can have your photo taken with one of the performers, for about 40 baht/1dollar and, if Richard Totman author of “The Third Sex – Thailand’s Ladyboys” is to be believed, this is where some of them make most of their money for the night! The cabaret is big business, but the performers don’t see much of the makings. If you wait around for another half and hour you can take one home for the night…again according to Totman I would like to stress.

Ladyboys are not really a Chinese thing, are they? In the Middle Kingdom you are either Yin or Yang, though there is a quite well known transsexual ballerina called Jin Xing, who used to be a PLA colonel! This Jin Xing is a bit exceptional, and has had quite an extraordinary life…and she knows it. In a Spiegel interview she acknowledged

“Today I serve as both an advertisement and an alibi for the party…Whenever a foreign politician talks about human rights problems in the People’s Republic, about record executions or about the cultural destruction of Tibet,” Jin Xing explains, “our people respond: Yes, but we have a transsexual colonel, whom we allowed to obtain a sex change, and who now performs as a prima ballerina.”

But I guess the reason that most Chinese are fascinated with Thai ladyboys is because it IS so exotic for them. Hell, it was pretty damn exotic for me after the British versions of Julian Clary, Boy George, Margaret Thatcher, and Dame Edna Everidge. The only remotely feminine looking one amongst that lot was the young Boy George but even then he was never that attractive, just feminine looking. Whereas many Thai ladyboys are very attractive and after the show I couldn’t help gawping a bit.


So, as I was living in Thailand for two years I had some time to do some more “ladyboy research”. The easiest way to do this is to go to a ladyboy go-go bar, where you will get practically mugged when you walk in. The deal is you fight your way through the attention, sit down and 6/7/8 ladyboys will pout and preen at you until you choose one to sit down next to you. I asked for the mama san and said I would like to have the one that spoke the best English. Seconds later a charming, if slightly chunky, ladyboy is fondling my leg and asking for a drink. There is not much bashfulness in these kinds of places so after having assured her I didn’t want to fuck or be sucked or suck or be fucked that night, I was asking if she could tell me how the ladyboys get like that, and who has what, if you catch my drift. “ curious man? Ok…” she points at a waif like Kate Moss type figure “that one..have big cock! That have cock,” she kept on pointing around the room “have cock…have small cock… no have cock…no have cock!” All in a strong Thai accent which makes “cock” sound like “caaaaark”! Pretty funny, and well worth the price of a ladyboy drink. What kind of customers do you get, I asked. Mostly middle aged and older men, a fair number of middle-easterners, and the Japanese have a thing about girls who’ve had the snip, apparently. And do they ever get men who don’t realise this is a ladyboy bar? “Yes, but we tell them. Not good for them, not good for us if they take home a mistake.”

They take a lot of hormones, of course, and have breast surgery as soon as they can afford it. Did I want to feel? Well, OK… and all I can report is that it’s a miracle what surgeons can do these days. And did I go back and take one home? Well, that’s really none of your business, but it’s exactly what you’re wondering right now, is it not gentle reader?

What I did do was have the English-speaking ladyboy give me a guided tour of some Thai markets and famous Bangkok monuments. Her English was indeed very good and she had some nice stories to tell. Apparently, when Thai ladyboys go to Singapore to make “big money” they run the risk of having their long locks lopped off there and then if caught by Singapore’s no-nonsense cops. “Your ID says you’re a man, you should have hair like a man…la!” And of course there’s the stories where a western guy hits on a ladyboy and falls for her, and then gets a big shock. Typical “har har” stuff, but the surprising thing is how many men then go on to decide that it doesn’t really matter that much if their inamorata comes “avec schlong.” Yes, Bangkok is a bendy kind of place it would seem.

And she claimed that kathoey are for the most part relentlessly materialistic…Bangkok life is already all about the money and the designer gear but for the kathoey, more so apparently. Which was why it was nice to hear the Miss Tiffany 2007 come out with this

The winners of the Miss Tiffany pageant, now in its 10th year, are often showered with entertainment deals, but Ms Siraphatphakorn said she wanted to return to the impoverished Issan region where she grew up to become a social worker.

“I want to become a social worker,” she said.

“Many people, particularly in Issan, do not have many opportunities, so they need help from teachers and social workers to improve their lives.”

Well, that’s a bit more specific than wanting world peace (like me!) anyhow. And most ladyboys are not sex-workers either, surprise, surprise.

My guide also told me what ladyboys really are…the third sex. Yes, this means that if you like ladyboys it does not mean you are gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay, it’s just a different vibe, but it’s bound to worry some men of course. So, you can have absolutely no desire to sleep with a man, but still like ladyboys…. what, even tooled up ones? Yes, daaaarling! She told me to read the wise words of Captain Outrageous of who has the following agony-aunt style guidance on his website

The funny thing is that those who like ladyboys are usually regular people, like me. I get emails asking if liking ladyboys means you are gay. No, it doesn’t. I have no attraction to masculinity at all. I love women and I love ladyboys. They really are the third sex. When you are with a ladyboy, you’re with a girl who has a dick, and the rule book goes out the window.

Good old Captain, breaking all the rules!

And basically I could not care less what people do with their genitalia, or whatever else, in the pursuit of pleasure, as long as it’s consensual of course. All the big fuss about transgender issues and homosexual marriages makes me wonder when and if the human race will grow up.

“But what if your son wanted to be a ladyboy?” I can imagine someone asking. Well, he’d have a few issues with his mum, I guess, but none from me. What’s wrong with understanding and support, I wonder? Does that make me weird or something?

And the last word on this topic should go to “Beautiful Boxer”, the extraordinary film about the extraordinary Thai kickboxer “Nong Toom.” If you haven’t heard of him, this was the guy who became a kickboxing champion in the face of all the boxing macho culture. He used to put on make-up before his bouts and would kiss his vanquished opponents! Hah! And he made enough money to get his longed for sex change. The film’s catchphrase is unimprovable “He fights like a man, so he can become a woman”, and it’s a wonderful film. Sensitive, moving, serious, and brilliantly acted by the main star Asanee Suwan.


There’s a marvellous moment towards the end of the film where Nong Toom has fought his last fight and is sitting in front of the mirror dressed as a woman and wearing make-up. In the mirror he can see his former self in Thai boxing gear who has come to say goodbye to him. They talk, and boxer gives his support to beauty, then “I have to go” he says. “I…” she chokes with emotion and can’t finish her response…and he leaves. But the great, and untranslatable, thing about this exchange is that in Thai the first person singular pronoun changes for gender. What he – the boxer – says is “Pom have to go” and she replies “Chan…” which is the first time the character uses the feminine first person in the film.

A subtle and well rendered transition.

A shame then that ladyboys will mostly have to bear the brunt of smutty jokes and ignorant ogling for a good long time to come. Mea Culpa too here a little, of course, but at least I’ve made an effort to understand them, and not just laugh at them.

And you?

May 18, 2007

Could Da Shan ever be Chinese?

Filed under: China,culture — Kim @ 7:46 pm

Mr Da Shan tends to provoke mixed reactions amongst expats. Some say best of luck to the guy, he’s put in the hours to learn Chinese etc, but many see sour grapes. Peter “River Town” Hessler’s comment that Da Shan has “more than a touch of the trained monkey” is a bitingly snooty put down from a usually big-hearted guy.

But he gets almost total admiration from the Chinese, and most will say that he speaks better Mandarin than they do.

For what it’s worth I respect the guy and quite warm to his affable and dorky persona, but what I’ve been wondering recently is whether he could “become Chinese” if he so desired. I mean, let’s imagine that Da Shan renounced his Canadian citizenship, became a Chinese national, and nationalist perhaps, and insisted to all and sundry that he was a Chinese. What would be made of that, I wonder?

As far as I can tell, it would be perfectly possible. My online checks told me he could get a Chinese passport should he want to, although I couldn’t find out if there actually are any foreign born ethnic Caucasians who have switched to Chinese nationality. But that’s all beside the point really.

What I am wondering of course is what percentage of Chinese would actually accept him as Chinese, intellectually and sentimentally.

My dad still doesn’t accept that non-white people can be English, although British is OK. Yes, even if someone is totally and utterly English sounding and behaving and has an English passport and will tell you “English” if you ask for his/her nationality, for my dad the skin colour is enough to disqualify them in his eyes from being English. My mum thinks this is annoying tribalistic nonsense, and so do I, but I guess it would be the reaction of let’s say 99.99% of Chinese if faced with a whitey claiming to be Chinese. Even if it was the famous Da Shan himself, I suspect.

I might be way off here though, I’ve only asked 3 Chinese people’s opinion on this!

Anyone else willing to share their guess as to how a Chinese Da Shan would be received, and why? Could anyone else ask their Chinese friends about it?


There is an interesting case over in Japan where a certain Dave Aldwinckle changed his American nationality to Japanese and became Arudou Debito. In a fairly well known and well documented case, he went to a hot springs resort and was refused entrance because the resort was “Japanese Only.” He vigorously objected in his fluent Japanese, but that wasn’t enough. He came back and brought his Japanese passport with him, but that wasn’t enough. The manager claimed that if he allowed whiteys in then he would be bankrupted because his clientele wouldn’t stand for it. He went to court and finally got his way, and was awarded a fair bit of money! The story has another happy ending; Debito and the bathhouse manager are drinking buddies now and the manager is a repentant man. Debito is now fragrant, although I still doubt somehow that many Japanese would accept him as being Japanese.

May 13, 2007

The Three Taboo Ts

Filed under: China,politics — Kim @ 3:36 pm

At my part time job the contract states that we are not to bring up or (if brought up) talk about the three Ts of Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen with our students.

I heard a great story recently about an unexpected consequence of this little stipulation. According to an inside source (a colleague) the school gets pretty busy in summer and will take almost anyone with a foreign face who walks through the door.

Last summer, apparently, an English traveller on her year out (makes her 18/19) came knocking and was snapped up for a month’s duties. At the end of her interview, she was given the contract to peruse and came to the three Ts. Tibet, ok, got it. Taiwan, erm, ok. Tiananmen,pause, that’s the big square in Beijing, right? So,well, why am I not supposed to talk about that then?

She hadn’t been reading her Lonely Planet carefully enough, it would seem. Too many computer games? A generation gap? Not, I was assured by my colleague, a crafty bluff, she genuinely didn’t know what the issue with Tiananmen was.

This put the Chinese boss in the bizarre and uncomfortable position of having to explain what had happened in Tiananmen all those years ago, so that she could know what it was that she was not supposed to talk about.

You really don’t know? Squirm, squirm. Nigger, niggerthere was some problems there with students, nigger, nigger. Squirm. He turned to my colleague who was also, obviously, in the room. “Perhaps you could explain it to her later?”

Kafka would have loved it.