I Bummered At That Time

Momo, a nickname for her that I overuse shamelessly and mispronounce incorrigibly, is one of my favourite students. She’ll volunteer her paper if it contains an example of a writing fault I’ve been discussing with the class. She has one of those shining, intently learning faces that every teacher is nourished by, and she writes an English journal with ferocious interest and effort. Ms. Zhu also reads enough English that she can insert a bit of tasty slang in her writing. I was beyond delighted to find, as I checked her Journal progress, a few paragraphs about a significant disappointment that she had experienced. Looking back on it, she wrote, “I bummered at that time!”

It helps that Momo is such a great kid, but this is one of my recent favourite bits of Chinglish. They’re easy to find. Constantly, the Chinese fad for clothing with English (or Franglish, or Germlish) writing on it has results that are just stupid: the knockoff NBA basketball jerseys for the mighty “Laekrs”, or the pretty little girl whose jacket was adorned with the charming message “happy fuck styling”. Such clothing is made, often with utter randomness, by underpaid workers who have no English for people who can’t read it. Occasionally, though, even one of my reasonably high-functioning students messes up, like the quiet young man of great gentleness and dignity who blushed when I teased him about his parka, which shouted a knockoff Playboy logo (complete with bunny ears). He hadn’t really noticed it. It’s too easy, as a mocking party game, for ex-pats to compare notes on the most recent encounter with idiocy. As in many areas, China is rushing madly to raise its standard of English, yet typically with that peculiar Chinese confidence (or shame?) that means they don’t check the translation with anybody.

Humility, though, comes in considering the converse: if China suddenly became the most dominant economic and cultural engine on the planet, and North Americans and Europeans were forced to learn Mandarin or be left hopelessly behind, how many eye-rollingly stupid mistakes would we make? (I have no way of verifying this, but I can’t help but think that many of the fashionable tattoos with Chinese characters, proudly worn by Western hipsters and athletes, must say some pretty goofy things.) And by the way: we’re not so far from the Chinese language having a global relevance that’s going to make English chauvinists squirm, so maybe we shouldn’t giggle too loudly or too long about adventures in Chinglish.

So I try my best to enjoy some of the more creative examples. Sometimes it’s frustrating, as a writing teacher, since even some of the things that they are taught make for turgid or ridiculous writing. No Chinese student will “try” something, for instance. They will always “have a try”. Still, it’s often charming, and sometimes it’s so darned economical that we adopt it linguistically, as we did with the classic bit of Chinglish long time no see! On every occasion where I have appreciated, or chuckled at, or otherwise faced the mangling of “my language” with good humour and grace, well, let’s just say that I never bummered at that time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *