Book Excerpt: Chinglish

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted an update on the book.  Today’s post is an excerpt, “Chinglish,” from the Coffee, Tea and Holy Water China section:


When my stay with Lisa is over, I travel to another province to visit Kyle, a good friend who has been working in China for two years. When the time comes to go to the airport, I am picked up by a no-nonsense woman taxi driver who glares at me warily and spits on the pavement. The Chinese believe in a flow of energy throughout the body (qi) that must be kept in proper balance. As a result, they are a matter-of-fact about expelling bodily fluid like mucus, and it is not considered rude to spit in public. She nods as if agreeing with the words of Shrek, “Better out than in, I always say.”

I am the only “foreigner” on my flight, evoking stares both at the terminal and on the plane. This does not deter the young Chinese man sitting beside me who gives me his business card and tries to pick me up en route to the city. He does know English, so we have a brief conversation. When I ask him what he thinks about Christianity, he laughs. “That’s for the older people. I think the young people find it hard to believe,” he says.

Kyle meets me at the airport, where he is able to rescue me from a line of drivers offering to help with my baggage and help hail a taxi. Thankfully, Kyle is semi-fluent in Mandarin and is able to give orders to the gruff-looking cab driver.  To say the Chinese language is difficult would be an understatement. As any Westerner will tell you, being able to speak Mandarin and being able to write it are two separate things. If that weren’t enough, the language uses various tones to communicate different meanings of the same syllable. (And while the language pre-dated communism, of course, there is something ironic about the fact that even the tone in which one must speak is pre-determined.) For example, Ma in a steady or flat tone (“Ma.”) means mother. Spoken in a low to high tone (Ma?), Ma means hemp. Ma (Ma-ah?) spoken in a falling-to-rising tone, it means horse, and Ma (Ma…) in high to low tone means scold. Speakers have control over the volume of their voice, but because the tone is already decided, it often seems like the Chinese are angry or inappropriately passionate about something, when they are simply communicating a fact.

Needless to say, proper pronunciation is key. I find this out when attempting to tell our taxi driver “Thank you,” (xie xie) accidentally saying the word for little girl’s pee instead. After being let out of the taxi, we walk through the side streets to Kyle’s apartment, which, I must say, would be considered ghetto in the U.S. “You only get an elevator in your building if it has more than seven floors,” he explains, as we huff and puff, dragging the suitcases up the stairwell to his apartment on the 6th floor. Curious floating seeds looking like feather down waft through the air from the tops of the trees, as if it were raining chickens.

Kyle knocks on the door of a few of his Western apartment mates, Ben and Ellen, to see if they’d like to join us for lunch. As with other countries, lunch is the primary meal in China.  It is so important that “Have you eaten?” is a standard mid-day greeting. The other party is expected to answer “Yes,” or “No, but I plan to eat shortly.”

“Have you eaten?” Kyle hollers through the door. Ben and Ellen say no.

But there is a Japanese/Thai restaurant nearby they have been wanting to try. It is hot and humid outside, and we walk to the restaurant. The pavement radiates heat upward like a stovetop. My first lesson about Chinese traffic as a pedestrian is that cars do not slow down for you. At all. Hesitate for any reason or trip on your shoelace and you’re a bug on the windshield. My clothes are damp by the time we get to the restaurant, which involves dashing across several major intersections one lane at a time, frogger-style.

Upon arriving at the restaurant, the waitress pours us hot tea. At Kyle’s suggestion, I order the Pork Noodle Soup. This was not a well-thought out choice. For those who can’t use chopsticks very well, you don’t want to order anything with “soup” or “noodles” in the title. A steaming bowl of sliced pork with noodles in seasoned broth arrives. On the list of foods to eat during chopstick lessons, I have ordered something on the medium-to-expert level. The pork is somewhat easy to manage, but the noodles are not long enough to wrap around the chopsticks, falling instead back in the bowl with an embarrassing splash. I ask for a fork. Even after Kyle has translated this to the waitress, her blank stare remains. She looks at me as if I have asked for a sippy cup. This is not a western restaurant and there are no forks. “No problem,” I say with a smile. How big a deal can it be to eat with the chopsticks?

A minute later, the chopsticks are in the floor. Kyle has to flag the waitress down again. Can we have another set of chopsticks? She casts me another pitying look. Clearly, this American is incapable of feeding herself. Across the table, Ben and Ellen are knocking back some form of hot sushi with gusto. By the time I have figured out a suitable eating method, which basically involves impaling the noodles and pork on one chopstick and eating it like a kebab, everyone else is finished.


One of the most frustrating cultural differences to outsiders is the Chinese custom of “saving face.” As with many cultures – particularly in the East, where material possessions are scarce and all one has is one’s good name – the worst think one can do socially is to insult someone’s honor or personal integrity in any way. This seems obvious to most people as a matter of simple respect. What is not obvious, however, is the degree to which the Chinese take it. Over the years, Chinese sensitivity has evolved to include not just dishonor, but anything that deviates from an ideal encounter – a disagreement, lack of knowledge, or anything insinuating lack of competency on behalf of the second party.

When asked a question, to simply say “I don’t know,” would indicate an intellectual deficiency on behalf of the answeree, potentially embarrassing both them and the interrogator for having evoked embarrassment. To mask this, protocol is simply to defer the question by saying, “That is an interesting question,” or “I will research this.” When asking a business person for something he or she is unable to do, rather than simply be straightforward and say, “I can’t do that,” the common response is, “I’ll look into it and get back with you.”

Those familiar with the nuances of “saving face” can recognize a non-response for what it implies, but to those unfamiliar, it can be a great source of consternation. Take the act of applying for a government license, for example. When following up on paperwork that should have already been processed, rather than saying, “This is taking longer than we thought,” or even worse, “We’ve lost your paperwork,” the official will say something like “Your form has been re-routed to another agency,” leaving the applicant in complete confusion.

We run into the saving-face principle in action when Kyle stops by his employer on the way back to the apartment to check on a room he is planning to reserve for a meeting. The management keeps trying to persuade him to have it at a different venue, which won’t work for the purposes he needs it for. He later finds out that there is a hole in the floor of the room he needs. They can’t get it fixed in time, and instead of just telling him that, they are trying instead to get him to have the meeting outside.

Back at the apartment, Kyle tosses his keys onto a table and wearily plops down on the thin, cheaply padded couch in the apartment. Another of his friends, Holly, has joined us. He tells her about the frustrating outcome of the visit. The mood is soon lightened when Holly produces a menu from a Western restaurant she recently visited with bad English translations for some of the various dishes.

To be continued….