« July 2008 | Main | September 2008 »

August 2008 Archives

August 7, 2008

Why bad dictionaries mean better vocabularies

“No pissing around,” intones a friendly cartoon boy on a subway poster.

It’s an unfortunate translation, but at least it’s clear. More perplexing is the exhortation to not throw “pericarps.”

The longer I’m in China, the more I come to thank shoddy dictionaries for improving my obscure English vocabulary.


I stared blankly at the entry. “Carbuncle?”

I was plodding through the Chinese novel I’ve been working on, when my trusty hardbound Chinese-English dictionary failed me.

The character I didn’t recognize, yong (痈) was defined simply as “carbuncle.” End of story. Five pounds of dead weight I’ve carried all over China and this is all I get?

Because the character was ringed by the disease radical, I knew it probably didn’t have a pleasant meaning. But the question was still unresolved.

I had to take the dispute to be adjudicated by the American Heritage English Dictionary, who intoned that it was, “a severe abscess or multiple boil in the skin, typically infected with staphylococcus bacteria.”

Chinese-English dictionaries are filled with fun, baffling entries like the above that leave me more confused than I was before I opened my dictionary.

Some words I’ve learned are translated strangely probably due to their Asian origin, like ‘rattan,’ meaning ‘cane,’ from Malay.

Others are unmarked Britishisms, like ‘canteen,’ my students’ word of choice for the school cafeteria. After months of conjuring visions of Old West saloons, a student showed me that the word is ‘cafeteria’ in British English.

Others odd translations, I believe, are the product of an inept translator in some dark corner using a shoddy dictionary. The reminder in the Guangzhou subway not to toss “pericarps” is an example.

‘Pericarp,’ my arbiter declared, is “the part of a fruit formed from the wall of the ripened ovary.” In other words, ‘fruit peels,’ an odd translation of the Chinese guopi (果皮).

So as my English grammar slowly erodes from disuse, my lexicon for obscure English words is getting stronger every day. Shoddy dictionaries are making all of us better off—especially since my students now know not to be “pissing around.”

August 21, 2008

Reading a Banned Book and Getting Yelled at in Malaysia

I was just reading quietly on a bus in Malaysia, but that was enough to arise the scorn of the woman across the aisle.

It all started a month ago when I was in Beijing for research. Before leaving, I picked up a copy of The Ugly Chinaman in a streetside bookstore for 10 Yuan ($1.50).

The Ugly Chinaman is a biting critique of Chinese culture written by a Taiwanese professor of history who had been sent to prison for 10 years after writing a politically sensitive cartoon. If the name sounds slightly familiar, that’s because the book was inspired by American social critique in The Ugly American, which was followed by The Ugly Japanese.

The Ugly Chinaman compares Chinese and American cultures, and criticizes everything from traditional culture and Confucianism limiting potential to arguing that Chinese people are loud, messy, and bad at cooperating.

Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote The Ugly American in 1958 and it became a bestseller and highly influential novel. Bo Yang wrote The Ugly Chinaman to widespread scorn and banning on the mainland.

Chinese society—Taiwanese or Mainland—does not have a long history of social critique, and Bo Yang’s writings are not popular nor well received. In fact, when I was visited in Hong Kong by several friends from Guangzhou, they noticed my worn copy sitting on the coffee table and warned me, “Thomas, you should be careful with that book. We’re more open-minded, but many people hate that book.”

Normally, reading Chinese in public invites praise and curiosity from those around me. This time, however, my choice of reading clearly put off my friends, and I soon moved the book out of the common room.

Having been warned, perhaps I should have known better when I boarded a bus to the Cameron Highlands in central Malaysia. Perhaps I shouldn’t have plopped down in the front row where each passenger passes by before taking their seat.

Yet there I was, reading the book with my hardcover dictionary on the seat next to me, when a Chinese wife, husband, and young child boarded the bus. To my surprise, they spoke Mandarin amongst themselves in a country where most ethnic Chinese speak Fujian dialect or Cantonese.

They sat across the aisle, and soon the wife started talking on her cell phone in Chinese, assuming strangely that I, reading a Chinese book, would not be able to understand her Chinese. Soon I was the topic of the conversation as her voice filled with disgust: “There’s a guy reading Bo Yang next to me,” she hissed, lacing the author’s name with disgust.

I pretended not to hear her in order to avoid any confrontation and to see whether she had any other commentary on the book I had chosen. But I avoided further eye contact and the criticism ceased.

Back in Hong Kong and headed for the mainland, I’m still working on the book with its high literary writing style that makes for slow progress. But now I’ll think twice about bringing it with me to read on the subway.

The Ugly Chinaman used to be banned; now it’s only banned informally and on Malaysian buses.

August 25, 2008

Reading Gets me in Trouble Again

Apparently I haven’t learned my own lesson.

In my last post, I concluded that I should be more careful about being seen carrying my copy of The Ugly Chinaman. Just after I made my post, I headed out the door with backpack in hand to pick up my visa from the Chinese embassy.

My bag hadn’t been searched closely on my prior visit to the embassy, so I expected to get through quickly. But as I was putting my belt with a metal buckle back on, the plump, 40-something security guard hesitated, and his sideways, cursory glance into my bag turned into a more dedicated inquiry.

“Unbelievable,” I thought, as the man pulled out the worn book, held it an arm’s length from his far-sighted eyes, and read the title in Cantonese to the huddle of other guards standing behind the X-ray machine.

“This stays here,” he decreed in English. His pronouncement was uninformative; was he offended at my choice of titles, concerned about me bringing it into the visa section, or simply curious at the foreigner carrying a Chinese book?

“Looking for reading material? Want the dictionary, too?” crossed my mind, but I stifled the statement.

As I rode up the sterile metal elevator to the 7th-floor visa section, paranoid thoughts of the guards radioing up news of their find and having my visa mysteriously denied played in my mind.

Ten minutes later I was back in the elevator with visa in hand, sharing space with the very guard who had nabbed my book.

“That your book?” he said without emotion betraying his thought.

“Yup,” I replied. The elevator hum filled the pauses.

“You study in China?” he proceeded, turning only slightly in my direction, trying not to be too friendly.

“Yes, Chinese literature,” I said.

We then stone-lipped the awkward silence of the rest of the slow elevator ride. Back at the checkpoint, he escorted me to retrieve my book, where a younger guard in a white uniform had it cracked open across a table, reading.

“You can read this?” he asked in Mandarin.

“Yeah, I’m a student,” I explained apologizing for the imposition of my language learning.

“You write characters well,” he said, referring to my notes in the margin.

“Where? Where?” I said in the standard, but dated phrase of humility now used only by foreigners. Normally impatient with the obligatory modesty dance, I was willing to do the dance this time to end the situation smoothly (and, no doubt, because my characters look like a 5-year-old’s).

“Lihai, lihai!”—Awesome!—he said, the corners of his lips leaning into a smile.

I took my book with another volley of “Where? Where?” and made my exit, still unclear as to whether my book was confiscated out of curiosity or because of its content.

Back at home, a Chinese friend of mine surmised that to encounter a foreigner reading things critical of Chinese society was to lose face, thus prompting the guard’s reaction.

In my mind, face is still a “messy seven, eight awful” concept, to quote a common Chinese phrase. Whatever the reason, this ugly American had still not learned his own lesson.

August 28, 2008

Medalling in Imperialist Couch-Sitting

The man stared at me with contempt in his eyes. “You think just ‘cause you’re a foreigner you can do whatever you want? Look at all those Chinese people staying on the other side!”

Having lived in China for a year and a half, I had never been accused of foreign imperialism before (except by myself). But here in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, I was embroiled into what was quickly becoming a scene of foreign aggression.

My supposed foreign aggression started when my legs got tired while I was waiting for my friend to use the bathroom in the Hong Kong Museum of Art. After seeing two guys chatting on a couch on the other side of a red rope, I knee-highed over the barrier to join them on the couch.

Soon, a Chinese man joined the hurdle event to check out the spectacular panorama the museum has of Hong Kong Bay.

“You can’t come in here: this is a work zone,” they told the man, who returned toward the bathroom. I figured I was OK, since I had made eye contact with the two guys previously and had been sitting on the couch just over the rope for several minutes.

But a minute later, the older of the two guys leaned back and asked in remarkably fluent English, “You just don’t get it, do you? We’re working here. Leave.” His tone was full of surliness as he implicitly deemed the chat they had been engaged in as work.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was intruding,” I replied as I stood up. “But could you say it politely?”

The man then accused me of colonially arrogant couch-sitting, backed up by his 20-something workmate during our minutelong argument.

The fact that the area was devoid of work-related materials and that the men were wearing casual clothes seemed to be irrelevant in the determination of my colonial aggression.

I brooded on the incident the rest of the day, pondering why it had occurred in my brief stay in Hong Kong but never in a year and half on the mainland.

Perhaps Hong Kongers are feisty in the same way big-city New Yorkers are reputed to be.

Or perhaps it’s Hong Kong’s history of colonialism. A friend and professor in Hong Kong cited Hong Kong’s long history of colonialism, compared with relative minimal colonization on the mainland.

Or perhaps Hong Kongers feel freer to stick up for themselves because of the city’s wealth and prestige. If so, that would imply that I’m similarly pegged as an imperialist couch-sitter on the mainland, but that mainlanders feel too intimidated to voice it.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that tensions still flare in Hong Kong, almost ten years after the territory was returned to China. In the end, I stood back on my sore feet, still waiting for my friend. I’m no Rosa Parks, but I’d like to think I’m no Hernan Cortez either.