When the crowded subway train I was riding pulled into Dongdan Station, I flushed red with embarrassment. Cultural psychologists say embarrassment is an emotion more commonly felt in China, but I knew why the blood was rushing to my face: I’m midwestern and this was a transfer station.
Wait, this wasn’t a transfer station. It was, in the words of the English announcement woman, a trænsfer station, a nasal, push-so-much-air-through-your-nose-you-could-start-a-wind-farm træænsfer station. This Beijing Subway Corporation obviously chose to employ a nasally midwesterner to record their English announcements.
All of this would be funny if I weren’t also from the midwest, where the accent turns words like bagel into insufferable nasal soundings. No one likes to be told they have a funny accent, so—even though my Chinese friends can’t hear the nasal “a” in the announcement—it’s still enough to make me blush.
Yet what my Chinese friends do notice is the announcer’s terrible Zhonglish (i.e., Chinese [zhongwen] + English, or a foreigner with bad Chinese pronunciation, akin to Chinglish or an American saying “Kay-suh-dill-uh” for the Spanish ‘quesadilla’). The subway announcer very clearly butchers the Chinese names of the stations, turning “dohng dahn” into “dahng dæn.” My Chinese friends complain: Why can’t they find someone who speaks better Chinese to say it right?
Even though I’m a language nerd, I still defend the woman’s Zhonglish. The English announcements are designed for people who can’t understand Chinese. And to people who can’t understand Chinese, fluent, native “Zhang Zizhong Lu Station” sounds like, “What was that station?” Yet a butchering like “Jayng Zee Johng Loo” is more likely to get the message across.
I’ve seen fluent pronunciation confuse my foreign visitors even with common names that all foreigners know, like ‘Beijing.’ Yet a heavy, toneless “Bay-jing” will always do the trick.
I’m all in favor of foreigners picking up Chinese while they’re in China, but the subway is not the place to make principled linguistic stands and send unwitting foreigners to stations unknown. Up with Zhonglish, I say, but let’s clean up those nasal Midwestern vowels.