Saturday, March 21, 2009

Qing Jiang Putonghua

I have this shirt that says, in Chinese characters, "Please speak Chinese." I wore this shirt, with great effect, in Wushan, a small river town that boats pass by, but that sees very few waiguoren strolling on its streets.

In most places, my shirt elicits giggles as people walk by and read it. But in Wushan, the shirt played a second role that actually improved our ability to communicate with the town's residents. Since there are so many local dialects here in China, most people in small towns naturally speak their local language, making it nearly impossible for us to decipher their meaning.

Here's where the shirt really came in handy. More precisely translated, the shirt says the equivalent of, "Please speak the Queen's English." On at least one occasion, as we found ourselves surrounded by curious locals (while chowing down on the town's characteristic street foods...stir-fried potatoes and sweet, corn-bread like spongy cakes), the shirt sent the clear signal that standard Mandarin would be our only channel of effective communication.

So, thank you, John Pasden. (At least I think it is you who designed the shirt.) We were all able to laugh at each other's language liabilities. And we were able to learn something about each other (usually, my salary...always a hot topic in small towns) as well.

~Steve

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