22 Years Ago Today…

…I landed in Beijing to begin what I thought was one year of working in China as an English teacher!!  I ended up teaching for 2, going back to the States for more schooling, then back here in ’90, and have been here most of the time since then.  Interestingly enough, I haven’t made it back to English teaching. I studied Chinese, then ended up in educational program administration! It’s hard to believe how much China has changed in the past 22 years.  In many ways, it’s not even the same country it was then.  Particularly since the early 90’s it’s like living in a video that is stuck on "fast forward."  I wish I had been more attentive to the changes as they were happening, and done a better job of making note of them (both in writing and on film), but usually when one is in the midst of such tremendous change, it’s not so clear.  Rather, you sort of wake up one day and realize that it all changed!  I consider myself priviledged to have had the opportunity to have a front row seat at China’s development over the past 22 years.  I can’t even imagine what it will be like 22 years from now! 

Best NOT to Understand Chinese

Over the weekend I made a day trip to Qinhuangdao, a port-city about 3 hours east of Beijing.  I went over to do a cross-cultural communication training session for some recently-arrived Americans.  I took the express train out there, ate lunch, lectured, and was on the 4:00 bus back to Beijing. WhenI arrived in Qinhuangdao,  I hopped a cab to the training site, and enjoyed seeing how much the city has changed since my last visit 5 years ago.  It’s actually a lovely city, being made even more so, since it will be one of the Olympic host cities (the football stadium is there).  Anyway, I ended up with a nice taxi driver who was surprised and thrilled to have a foreign passenger he could talk to.  Eventually, he asked me where I was from, and I told him the US.  "Oh," he said, "I didn’t think you were an American."  "Why not?" I asked him.  "Because Americans are beautiful!"  As soon as he said it, he whipped around and said, "no, no, you’re beautiful too….it’s just…."  Right.  Whatever.  I decided that he was just assuming all Americans look like movie stars…..At any rate, it was one of those moments when I thought it might be nice not to be able to understand Chinese!!!

Crackdown on Chinglish

Here’s another crackdown that I can fully support:  one on the use of Chinglish in signs.  Chinglish is the common term used locally to refer to poorly translated English that can be found on everything from street signs to menus. One fun area where Chinglish pops up is in the translation of movie titles.  I remember years ago being asked by my students if I’d seen the movie "Good-bye Weapons." Huh!  A little back and forth for clarification revealed that he was referring to the movie "Farewell to Arms."  You can go here to read a previous post on one of my favorite chinglish signs: More Perils of Direct Translation

The government announced recently that it was launching a campaign to get rid of Chinglish in the run up to the Olympics.  Here’s the article from the Xinhua News Agency:


has launched a campaign to correct its "Chinglish", or Chinese-style
English, on bilingual signs as part of its make-over for the 2008
Olympic Games. The
Beijing Municipal Tourism Bureau has issued a regulation requiring
correct English signs as one of the most important criteria for unrated
hotels to qualify as official accommodation providers.  The
city has around 4,000 unrated hotels, which are competing for the right
to join star-rated hotels offering services for the Games.  The
regulation requires hotels to translate their names, service hours,
room rates, and notices for guests into accurate English. They should
also provide signs and menus in correct English.   "Chinglish"
was once prevalent in the city’s signs. For example, some hotels misuse
"scatter" for "evacuate" in their emergency information. Tobacco shops
still advertise the sale of "smoke" instead of cigarettes and the Park
of Ethnic Minorities is identified as the "Racist Park". Drivers are
warned of the hazards of a wet road with a sign that reads: "The
slippery are very crafty."   Foreigners are often confused or misled by these signs.  In
a bid to improve the city’s bilingual signs and teach the public basic
English, the Beijing Speaks to the World Committee, a non-governmental
linguistic organization established in 2002, is identifying and
correcting translation mistakes in shopping centers, hotels, parks,
buses, subways and even the airport.   Zhou
Chen, information officer with the committee, said the organization
this year released a set of standards on Chinese-English translation
for public signs, such as traffic and road name signs.   "The
committee will cooperate with Beijing Traffic Management Bureau to
review and improve bilingual road signs according to the Chinese to
English translation standards," Zhou said.

Not only are foreigners often misled and confused, they are amused. 

And stay tuned for an upcoming post on the dreadful things foreigners (like me) say when we don’t pay attention to tones while speaking Chinese.  It would be called "Engnese" I suppose!

Donkey Burgers

There’s a new culinary sensation sweeping the masses of Beijing lately—Donkey Burgers.   They are not burgers as you or I may conceive of them–a meat patty on a bun.  Rather, Beijing donkey burgers are BBQ donkey meat inside something that is very much like pocket bread.  There’s a small restaurant near where I work that specializes in them.

Today, while eating there, I noticed a sign on the wall–a poem of sorts– that I’d never seen before, extolling the virtures of donkey burgers.  It said, "xiang changshou, chi lurou; yao jiankang, he lu tang."  Translated, it means:  "if you want to live a long life, eat donkey meat; if you want to be healthy, drink donkey soup."

I’ve recently taken to trying to find out how widespread the love of donkey-meat is, so have been doing informal polls among my Chinese friends.  The results:  those from the north or northeast of the country are aware of the culinary value of donkeys, and those from the south turn up their noses.  (But, keep in mind, folks from the south eat all manner of other strange creatures like civit cats!).  One friend from the northeast even went so far as to quote a famous saying about donkey meat:  Tianshang longrou; Dixia lurou. (In heaven there is dragon meat; on earth there is donkey meat.

Well, as clever as the sign and poem are, I still haven’t been able to bring myself to try a donkey burger!  Sorry folks, my loyalties are with Culvers!!!

Olympic Weather Forcast

This was an important week here in Beijing, as we hit the magical milestone of having only 2 more years until the opening of the 2008 Olympics.  There was much hoopla in this town to mark the occasion. The China Daily reported that 1 million residents got together to do morning exercises on the 8th.  Be assured that this foreign resident was NOT among them! 

The opening ceremonies of the Olympics are set to begin at 8pm on August 8, 2008.  Or, another way to say it….8-8-08.  And no, having all of those 8’s in there is not just to be cute, it’s to be auspicious.  You see, 8 is a very lucky number in Chinese, so starting at a time and date with so many 8’s all but gaurantees a successful Olympics! 

The Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee (BOCOG) has been holding a series of press conferences this week to update preparations and make outlandish promises about the Games.  My favorite headline was this one:  "Beijing Promises a Smog-free, Congestion-free Olympic Games."  Congestion-free is possible, since the government can simply order businesses to shut down and residents not to drive, but smog-free????  We’re going to need some pretty extreme climate change to take place between now and then for that to happen!

And then there’s the weather.  8-8-08 may be lucky as far as traditional Chinese thinking goes, but the weather in Beijing in August is typically dreadful!  Hot!  Humid!  Smoggy!  Foggy!  Rainy! Smelly!  If we have weather here in 08 like we’ve had this August, a billion people are going to lose face, big-time!  But not to worry, in a presser yesterday, a BOCOG official already rolled out the weather forcast for the Games:  "Weather data shows that the climate in August will be suitable for the Games.  The possibility of rain on August 8, 2008 is between 30 and 40 percent. If it does rain, it will most likely be a drizzle." 

Whew.  That’s good to know.  I guess I won’t need to take my umbrella. 


Well, it is finally going to happen.  The small "village" that is outside the gate of the school where our office is located is going to be torn down.  Since we moved our offices there in 1998, I have predicted every year, without fail (and with much certainty) that this will be the year the village is torn out to widen the road.  How it’s lasted this long I’ll never know, but it will be torn down within a few months.  How do we know?  The character painted in blue on the side of the store means "demolish," and it has now appeared on all of the buildings in the village.  The residents and store owners wake up one morning to see this scribbled on their buildings, and that’s that.  It usually means they have one month to get out.  With the Olympics only 2 years away, this is becoming a very common character around town.  In addition to many of the old parts of the city that are being demolished, these villages on the outskirts are going down as well.  The residents of these villages are, for the most part, migrant workers, peasants from the countryside who have come to the city in search of work and a new life.  In fact, my housekeep lives in this very village, and now she and her family are searching for a new place to live.  We also have a favorite restaurant that we go to often, which will have to move (not far, I hope). I suppose it’s an inevitable result of the development of a city (particularly one that is preparing to host the Olympics), but it is kind of sad to see these urban villages go. 

A Walk in the Clouds

After working non-stop since I landed back in Beijing on the 29th, I finally had a day off today.  A friend and I decided to escape the concrete jungle of the city and head to the mountains of Mentougou, a district west of town.  I called a driver friend, Mr. Z. to come take us out there.  Our destination was a place called Miaofeng Shan," an ancient temple built on the top of a 3000 ft. peak.  It wasn’t a great day, weatherwise (smoggy and cloudy), but that didn’t deter us.  As we climbed up the winding road, we ended up in the clouds, which means that we didn’t get to enjoy the supposedly gorgeous views from the top.  We didn’t mind, because the fog made for some etherial scenes as well.  And it was deliciously cool, unlike the sauna that is Beijing this time of year.

This temple turned out to be a "target-rich" environment for funny signs, which I am posting here, along with my favorite photo of the day.