131. Learning Chinese-English

Learning Chinese English: Our Chinese guesthouse room in the cozy old hill and valley town of Lijiang has a standalone shower unit in the bathroom. It’s round, like the sci-fi suspended animation tubes that keep pickled aliens on life support until the cleaning lady accidentally bumps them and unleashes holy hell on the space station. It’s also one of those deals where there are about 25 water jets staring at you from all sides, promising the kind of pulverizing cleanse I’ve never actually had the pleasure of receiving, because the goddamn things are always broken. In this case, one jet works and it’s a little left of center, which is a problem only because the glass door happens to be missing a panel directly opposite this jet. To remedy this, the guesthouse has cleverly installed a drain in the floor of the bathroom to receive the water that sprays everywhere when the shower is turned on. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of that. The shower also has a little control panel inside that looks as if it’s meant to control a built-in radio. The thread of disappointment continues when I figure out this doesn’t work either, although I did get some joy out of pressing the on/off button and watching it all light up momentarily until I realized that dear God this shower is actually connected to electricity. What a terrible idea. In the process of groping around behind the unit to find the plug, which I disconnected without incident, I also found a sticker written in that now familiar hybrid of Chinese-English. Chinglish. It said:
1. When you feel be choked with the roller door closed entirely, please move the door and keep chink when you are having a shower bath.

2. Those (Drinker, Hypertension Person, Feeble Person and Pregnant Women) are FORBIDDEN to have shower bath in room.

3. Children must have shower bath with parents company outside the room.

4. When you are stivy or vomit in the room, please go out the room immediately!

The real pity of the thing is that there was no second sticker to explain what the symptoms of “stivy” are, so I may never know far enough in advance if there’s any danger. I mean one minute I could be fine, working up a nice lather, and the next – stivy. “He was so young,” they’ll say, “to have gotten the stivy.” And naked like that, in a Chinese shower! What would his poor mother say?

There is a popular saying that it takes at least fifteen years of training in the Chinese language and one year of remedial English study to be able to write fluently in Chinglish. I’m certain this is true, because although we can read it well enough now, I cannot even begin to dream up something like the labial of that knockoff bottle of Johnny Walker. The volume of it all is overwhelming, like having too many smart things to laugh at in a Woody Allen movie, so you spend a lot of time making a kind of huffing laugh to yourself while shaking your head. And by ten in the morning, Amy’s usually had enough of me pointing and giggling at restaurant signs that say “Steamed Bums,” so it’s better kept inside anyway.

I’m not complaining. I’m not making fun, either, because we do genuinely appreciate the effort at stringing together some Roman letters in this foreign sea of swirling, complex pictographs. In so many cases, the Chinese language is simply too poetic, too rich in ancient metaphor, to translate neatly into English. The sign in the Shanghai subway that reads, “You should help others with wisdom and courage when you find the pickpockets” should inspire in me some much needed civic bravery, but instead I just elbow Amy and take a picture of it while some kid lifts a 50 Yuan note out of my back pocket. Smooth. Similarly, the efficiency potential of instructional English is lost entirely when the sign for a hands-free bathroom faucet is printed in the style of a Confucian philosophical statement. A sensitive tap, one needn’t touch it. Same meaning I suppose, with a bit more personal introspection. If one touches the sensitive tap, even when one needn’t touch it, what does this say about his or her motives in every day life? Deep. In complete contrast, there’s tons of stuff that’s clearly been translated word for word from the Chinese to English Dictionary, rendering it completely useless. We saw a billboard the other day that attempted to explain one of the enticements of an upcoming festival event. It read:

The promoted cycle we will bestow 500 “The Night Scene To Appreciate The Liquor Water Monetary Equivalent Ticket” will obtain the tourist will allowed to receive 30 Yuan characteristics liquors water jacket meal in the scenic area assigned loction, will limit 500 everyday, will deliver up to!

Advanced. I realized at the moment of reading this that I still have so much to learn. And I can’t speak for other tourists, but I can’t ever get enough of the museum signs that say, “Do not stroke the works.” Not touching something in a museum never sounded so dirty nor so appealing. One stroke couldn’t hurt, could it? C’mon. Just one stroke. Just one.


  1. I love this stuff! I had tears coming down my face reading this at work! I didn’t think I could discuss red labials with my co-workers though.

    I’d like to reserve “The Night Scene To Appreciate The Liquor Water Monetary Equivalent Ticket” as the album name for my full-length (due out later this millennium).

    And I told Claire she she should consider being a steamed bum for halloween.

  2. Sloan says:

    We tried to mail that (empty) bottle of Johnny Worker home yesterday and the China Post woman wouldn’t let us. I’ll be damned if I’m not keeping that thing somehow.

    Also, we’re checked into a fancy hotel in Kunming tonight, fancy in honor of Amy’s birthday today. In the collection of bathroom freebies was a rather elaborate Herbal Bath package for “discharging waste.” On the package it states that it should be used to treat the following: “1) Work and travel fatigue, insomnia; 2) Skin itching, eczema and allergic dermitis; 3) Rheumarthritis and pain in the loins; 4) Gyna ecological diseases, incessant menstruation, dysmenorrhea and middle-aged woman’s flabby vagina.”

  3. Anonymous says:

    steam the labials off, then mail those. there’s got to be a tea pot or two over there. bob

  4. Sheena says:

    Hi guys, I came across your web site last night following a link from another site, Rambling Traveller, which in turn I’d found by following the embedded puzzle link from Jigzone.com

    Over the two nights I’ve read every entry you’ve made and it’s been a wonderful ‘voyage’ with you both.

    Your descriptions of Ireland, the openness of the people, the crazy road signs and above all the beautiful Connemara mountains brought back memories for me. There again, as I live in Bristol in the South West of England, Ireland is only a relatively short hop for me.

    The funniest page of all has to be this one, I’ve had tears streaming down my face.

    Keep up the good work and enjoy the rest of your year long ‘holiday’. What will you do when you get back to the States???