English teachers in China be like… (LOTR version!)

I’m thankful for this day job at the neighbourhood preschool; it gives us a visa and a place in the local community, and it’s easy. But some days — like right now at the end of the semester when you have to prepare 200 Chinese 3-to-6-year-olds for their English exam — I could be one of several characters on a hopeless quest into the depths of Mordor:

This Chinese preschool’s Chinglish is getting out of hand

The Top (read: Bottom) Three Chinglish Offenses from this last semester.


lipstick saved me
Really: How does this stuff end up on children’s clothes in China?


money cash hoes
I actually explained this one to his Chinese teachers, and told them they need to tell his parents. They didn’t. +1 for spelling, though.

You should be thinking: what could possibly be better/worse than “HOES”?

Well, I’ll show you…


queen of effing everything
The Queen of Effing Everything, aka “‘Connie’, the sweet, five year old Chinese girl.”

I know I know — technically none of these are Chinglish because they’re all proper English. I’m using a better definition of “Chinglish”, O.K.?

After a while, the Chinglish can wear on your mind. Daily your landscape is populated with combinations of letters or words that look like real words or sentences — you know, the kind that mean something. Only they’re utter gibberish, and it’s impossible to tell what, if anything, they were originally meant to say. Probably the majority of t-shirt Chinglish is this way, at least in this preschool. Sure you learn to ignore it. But it still draws your eye, fires some back corner synapses in your brain because you naturally, automatically try to read it, only to discover it’s meaningless. It’s almost like a form of brainwashing, as if they were trying to unlearn your ability to read by showing you large volumes of nonsense every day for years.

But Chinglish takes many forms: random phrases, cultural debris lifted directly from English media and advertising, and often deployed in places you wouldn’t expect. Or apparently misremembered, misspelled words or phrases that you can still make out what they are meant to say. Or stuff that’s obviously translated out of Chinese that just sounds stupid, but occasionally funny (we have a “Comfortable Breast” rice bowl that we save for first-time Western guests). Or stuff that was obviously written by someone with English as their second language — grammar mistakes and word-choice problems. My favourite is a tie between the signage in Licun Park (see #1 in this Top 5 list, if you don’t mind swear words! ;) ) and this exceptional Bible story.

It’s not that I expect people to do better (can you imagine if every other North American business tried to produce their own Chinese signage?), and it’d be nice if they’d pay me as a consultant. But the sheer volume you’re exposed to here can be mind-numbing after a while…

The Alphabet, Beer, and how China will destroy our civilization

A is for Alphabet. B is for Beer. C is for China. D is for Doomed.

I thought it was curious that my adult students in Tianjin didn’t seem to “get” rhyming. I taught a series based on Dr. Seuss books, but the whole rhyming concept seemed new to them — like they just couldn’t hear it somehow. Now, as a preschool English “teacher”, I think I may have uncovered the source of this mystery.

The most popular beers in the world are ones you’ve probably never even heard of. Because China just has that many beer drinkers. But beer is not the point. Apply the beer situation to the English language, specifically, the ABC song, or as it’s known in China, the “ABC字母“。 It’s like they felt they needed to correct our poor allocation of syllables or something:

Seriously, walk into the nearest Chinese preschool, sing the first line and watch what happens. Or listen to this, which lives in our school’s classroom computers. Is it not appalling?[audio:https://chinahopelive.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/ABCs-the-WRONG-version.mp3]

But if 2 billion Chinese kids learn it “wrong” and a measly 500 million Anglo-American kids learn it “right”, the “right” version doesn’t stand a chance.

Chinese beer will rule the beer world. And so will Chinese English. By sheer force of numbers. Western civilization is doomed.

Language, perception and the Chinese colour “qīng”

So there’s this thing going around about how supposedly no one could see the color blue until modern times. I’m not sure I buy that; it’s interesting, but sounds like all the other pseudo-science and “history” sloshing around my social media feeds. And I don’t have the time to investigate it well enough to form an opinion. The Chinese have a colour that we don’t. Does that mean we can’t see it? Are we missing out?

The relationship between language and culture (or language and perception) is fascinating. I suspect that if I could somehow perceive the world from a born-and-bred Mainland Chinese perspective, my mind would short-circuit within the first few minutes.

Anyway, that article reminded me of the Chinese colour (qīng), aka blue, green, black, blackish-green, and the color of nature. The coworker I just asked says qīng is “a little bit greener than green” (“绿色绿一点”)。 Our almost-6-year-old daughter, who’s spent the last three years in an all-Chinese preschool and with whom we’ve never discussed qīng, mentioned the other day (without prompting from us) that qīng is “in rainbows, it’s really pretty green.”

qing bubbles

One of the fun things about Anthropology 101 is discovering that there are different ways cultures categorize the world, including the color spectrum. Look at these less-than-helpful dictionary entries for the Chinese colour qīng:

In Chinese other words are usually used for blue ,green 绿, and black 。 If I ask my Chinese kindergarten students the colour of the sky or grass or coal, they’ll probably use one of those three, not qīng 青。 But qīng isn’t rare; our city is Qīngdǎo (青岛: “Qīng Island”), our street is Qīngshān Rd. (青山路: “Qīng Mountain Rd.”), and there’s a province called Qīnghǎi (青海: “Qīng Sea”). In these place names, islands, mountains, and oceans can all be qīng, but aside from that I’ve never heard someone refer to an object as qīng. Apparently the 1800-year-old dictionary 释名 defines qīng as “birth, like the color of things born” (物生)。

Interestingly enough, a Google image search for “青” (“qīng“) turned up entries for the colour, and shows mostly blue, while a Baidu image search (the Chinese Google equivalent) turned up entries for words that contain the 青 character, and shows mostly green.

qing image search screenshot

But searching for “青色” (“the colour qīng“) yields more similar results:

It’s almost like Chinese qīng belongs in Dr. Seuss:

He has something called qīng.
qīng is so hard to get,
You never saw anything
Like it, I bet.
Then the qīng
It went qīng!
And, oh boy! What a qīng!
Now, don’t ask me what qīng is.
I never will know.
But, boy! Let me tell you
It DOES clean up snow!

IMO, our differences between cultures are much more profound than we tend to realize, and they don’t get the respect they deserve. But even deeper than that runs what we have in common, and that transcends biological and cultural differences.

P.S. — All these images, aside from the dictionary and Baidu screenshots, came from a Google image search for 青。 Click the images for their source page. The giant qīng eyeball is here.

For more about qīng:

For more language and perception:

Aiya, Wen-ge-hua… 哎呀,温哥华……

A rather Vancouver moment.

Today we took one of my Chinese students, a teenager from Beijing, to the Crystal Mall in Vancouver, B.C. for lunch and shopping. On the way home we were listening to Vancouver’s mostly-Chinese radio station, 96.1 FM, when a little English lesson segment came on introducing “The jig is up!” to the Chinese population of Vancouver. We listened to see how they’d translate it (完蛋了!), but I couldn’t help laughing and shaking my head when they gave the unfortunately appropriate example sentence: “The police found marijuana in his car. The jig is up!” At least Vancouver’s Chinese immigrant population is learning locally relevant English…

My Chinese students say the Crystal Mall is the current big Chinese hang-out (Chinatown is apparently for the older generation of Hong Kongers). If you combined a Tianjin supermarket with a Tianjin vegetable market, cleaned it up, made it a little less crowded, mixed in some 繁体字, and improved everyone’s English, you’d have the Crystal Mall. You can use Chinese in all the stores and they’ll hardly bat an eye.

We all had fun (Sara’s first time on the Skytrain), and it was good Chinese speaking time for us. I think we’ll do this again.