A Canadian in Beijing: Charmed by Chinglish

A few years ago, I had a running joke with a friend of mine about being “grammar police.” We used to lament not having a large stack of magic markers (of various colours and thicknesses) stashed in our bags or our vehicles at all times. These markers would be for quietly replacing missing apostrophes, for example, found on public signs or missing quotations, periods, question marks. Generally, we bonded over punctuation (yet another side of my geek self) but we would also stray into the territory of spelling once in awhile and report sightings of commonly misspelled words. In our policing fantasy, we would employ our arsenal or markers to reverse common spelling errors, as well, thus making the reading world a “safer” place.

I think this fantasy has been entirely cured here in China.

Everywhere I go in this city, I see English misspelled and/or misused. This is affectionately called “Chinglish” here (combination of Chinese and English) and I love it.

I recently saw a mistake on an official cover of a thick, glossy, fashion magazine that had purchased subway banner ads lining the walls of one of the subway stops. Picturing a gorgeous Hollywood star (who I couldn’t identify) and assuming they were boasting that this issue featured coverage of the ‘Best Bodies in Hollywood,’ the caption read: “Hollywood Specialty Bodies.”

I scratch my head and smile.Here in Beijing, there’s a movement to correct the English in advance of the Olympics. In fact, they’re talking about setting up a hotline to report English mistakes on official signs around the city and they hope to have the English cleaned up by the end of 2007. (This article notes some fantastic bloopers.)

I’m wondering how often this hotline will be called. My desire to correct signs dwindled when the task started to seem too vast. I have even seen engravings that are incorrect – marble and bronze alike. There’s very little one can do in these cases; those English errors are forever set in stone!

Of course, the errors aren’t just written errors. When I first took the subway, I was amazed that the recorded voice was in both English and Chinese. I did notice right away that the Chinese was more complete than the English, but that’s okay with me. I mean, we (as travellers) don’t really need all the additional polite commentary that follows the identification of the next stop: “if you are getting off at [the next station] please prepare for your arrival.” The only part that is translated is “the next station is…” and that’s all one really needs.

The part that I noticed was incorrect is when Line 13 ends and all passengers are expected to disembark and/or transfer to Line 2. The voice says: “Thank you for taking Beijing Subway. Welcome to take this line on your next trip. Have a nice day.” It’s completely clear what is meant, but the absence of a “the” before “Beijing” in the first sentence has now started to sound normal to my ears, not to mention the absence of “you’re” to start the second sentence.

All this started me thinking about the difficulties that English presents. The word “welcome” is commonly used on its own or to start a sentence like “Welcome to Beijing” or “Welcome to China.” It’s no wonder that this mistake is repeatedly made here because it is minor and hardly blurs the meaning. In fact, I barely notice it now and I may even come home speaking this way if I’m not careful!

In a more non-official light, clothing here is regularly covered in misspelled, illogical and/or completely ridiculous English, so much so that it’s sometimes funny. At the market a few weeks ago, I bought a t-shirt because it made me smile with its mixed up English. The front is just fun and says “Flashy Carnival” but the back? Well, it’s bizarre. My favourite line on the back is “everybody loves to be freedom.” I figured I needed to sport such a shirt, especially back home where people will read it and respond with a twisted look that tells me that they’re trying to solve my t-shirt’s riddle. I’ll have to laugh at these expressions and explain that I bought the shirt in China where t-shirts in English rarely make sense!

Years ago when I was studying Chinese in Canada, a friend of mine told me that the new wave of fashion in North America featuring Chinese characters also rarely made sense. I started to look closely at t-shirts with characters on them and I found that she was absolutely correct. She said that she’d see just jumbled Chinese characters on people’s shirts all the time and it was clearly just about the “style” and not the meaning.

Of course, that’s in reverse here. Tit for Tat.

Speaking of tats… we all know about those misused Chinese characters tattooed on people’s arms in North America. In fact, there are a few websites (like this one) devoted to the discussion of these lost-in-translation tattoo mistakes. Well, I’m happy to say that I have yet to see misspelled English on any Chinese flesh. Another point for China!

One of my favourite repetitive English errors is at the ATM machines. When you select “English” as your language of choice, everything is fine until the very end when the machine asks you if you’d like a “printed advice.” I looked at this carefully the first time, wondering if the machine was actually going to advise me about my financial situation. I thought, “An electronic financial advisor? How cool!” Of course, I realized quickly that they meant “invoice” or “receipt” here and it’s just been poorly translated. Still, I eagerly press “Yes” every time in hopes that I may one day get some advice from an ATM machine.

Even my text book (which includes English translations for the grammar sections) will often have errors. If not errors, it will have a jumbled set of sentences that lose meaning rather quickly. I have to chuckle to myself when I read them. I’m learning to just read the grammatical explanations in Chinese if I really want to understand what’s going on!

All in all, I’d be interested to hear follow-up about this attempt to reform the English signage here in Beijing. I’m wondering if anyone will really call and report the errors. Really, I wouldn’t bother. It’s fine with me. It’s part of the whole experience here and I’m (gratefully) no longer anal about these things. In fact, I am occasionally amused by the mistakes and that extra bit of humour in my day is something that I’ll never complain about.

In general, I appreciate even the little bits of English clarity that appear around the city. I see it as a welcoming gesture of kindness and nothing more.

Who cares if it’s perfect?

(Well, besides the Olympics committee. . .)

It’s more fun when it’s not.