Sunday 14 July 2013

Lost in translation

So far all my blog entries are in Chinese. My British friend (a.k.a. my bf) suggested to me a few times that I should balance my blog with at least some English entries.

He knows that he was mentioned in many of the entries. He is actually a main character. Each time when an entry was published, I would send him the link. He would say, "It's fantastic! I enjoyed reading it. But... what is it about?"

The main reason I write in Chinese is that it is the language I am most comfortable with. If I write in English, I would be tempted to ask my bf to comment on my writing before I post it up. That would make blogging so much more time-consuming, and perhaps less fun. So, I decided to let my Chinglish flourish here in The Window Seat.

I received my tertiary education mostly in the medium of the English language. I spent one year in America as an exchange student. I further attained another degree from the University of London. For who knows how many years, I have been working in the environment where I have to use English every day. While I have become quite confident of using English in school and at work, living with a gweilo is yet another story.

Living with a gweilo is another story...

I came to realise that my English is actually quite limited to the academic and official use. When it comes to everyday life, I feel like I am learning it all over again. What a shock it was to me when I realised that - I don't know English!(原來我唔識英文!)

An example is the names of food. A lot of the times when I wanted to tell my bf what I would or wouldn't like to eat, I struggled. Oh my goodness. What is the English of 荷蘭豆 and 鹹酸菜? Would he understand if I call them "Holland beans" and "salty and sour vegetables"? What is the English of 青豆 and 豆角? Can I just call both beans? What about 腐乳 and 南乳?

Lack of vocab may turn an argument to a war

Garlic fruit
I later realised that many of the foods are also new to him. He has never seen so many types of vegetables and fruits in Britain. I then felt more relaxed about food names. For instance, when I learned that 山竹 and 紅毛丹 are new to him, I would not bother to memorise their English names (which are "mangosteen" and "rambutan"). We just gave them new names which we would easily remember, ie the garlic fruits (because 山竹 without the skin looks exactly like a garlic) and the red hairy balls.

On a recent occasion when we had an argument, I felt stuck as I could not express my feelings freely. How should I express the feeling of 無奈? It is different from feeling helpless, speechless or sad. What is it exactly in English? Don't gweilos ever have the feeling of 無奈? A lot other terms are very important in times of an argument, eg , 安撫, 讓步, 詐型, 撒嬌 etc, which I found it difficult to find any English equivalents. If I translate to "pacify" and 讓步 to "make a concession", wouldn't the whole thing become a bit too formal, making an argument between us sound like a war between two states?

'Seldom' is a word we seldom use

While I feel the urge to increase my vocabulary, I found that a lot of the words our English teachers taught us have become out-of-date. One example. When I learned the present tense, the grammar book had a list of adverbs of frequency: always, often, sometimes, seldom, never. Yet when I said to my bf "I seldom go camping", he told me that "seldom" is a word people seldom use now. Instead, they would use "rarely".  

Simple vs Sophisticated

The same word, eg a word as simple as "simple", could mean something very different to Hongkongers and to British. I once told my bf that my friend H is a simple person. My bf frowned as he did not understand why I called H stupid. In English, he explained, if we say someone is simple, it means we think he or she is stupid. But in Chinese, quite the opposite, I thought it was a compliment to H because it means H prefers a simple life and is not too aggressive.

On the other hand, when we say someone is sophisticated in English, that is definitely a compliment. It means someone is intellectual. But it seems we do not have an equivalent in Chinese. If we think "being sophisticated" means 複雜 or 世故, a compliment in English would easily become derogatory in Chinese.

After my friend E learned from my blog how my bf encouraged me to identify people in need and hand out cash to them (our $50 little project), she left me a comment saying, "You two are dinosaurs!" When I forwarded my bf this compliment, he was confused, "Why would that be a compliment? If we say someone is extinct, that implies he or she cannot cope with changes." I had to explain to him that if we call someone an "extinct animal"(絕種動物), it means that we can hardly find anyone with such good characters these days.

Naturally blunt

Even when we give the same words the same meanings, the fact that we give them different "weight" could also give rise to misunderstandings. Before going out with a Brit, I did not know that the way Hong Kong people speak is quite blunt for "foreign ears". As Cantonese sounds very casual, it is quite common that we would say things like, "I'm a boring person", "my brother is so lazy", "you are lying", "he is such a coward", "I hate the food here". When my bf heard that, he could not believe it. He thinks that it is very extreme to say you hate something; that it is a very strong accusation to call someone a liar or a coward; that is it an insult to describe someone as lazy or boring. He did not understand that these are words that we use quite often, and usually in a casual conversation.

As time goes by, we slowly get to understand why he sometimes thinks I am too blunt, and why I sometimes could not understand what he really means. The "tea or coffee" example would probably be a good illustration:

When he offered to make me a cup of coffee, I would say, "No. I prefer tea." When I offered to make him a cup of coffee, he would say, "Oh, thanks! It's so nice of you! A cup of coffee would be lovely, but now I think I prefer a cup of tea, if that is not too much of a trouble."

Please say 'please'

If I can make myself clear in one word, I would say just one word. But to him, that would be a bit rude. It seems important to him that we show appreciation to others before we answer the question. If I give a yes or no answer, I should at least add one more word in each case, ie "Yes, please." and "No, thanks."

In primary school, my English teacher taught me that if we want to make a polite request, we would start the sentence with "would you" rather than "can you". So, whenever I asked my bf to do something for me, I would say, "Would you take the garbage out?" To me, it is very polite to make a "would you" request and say "thanks" once he delivered. This is my polite version, and yet he is not happy. He would wait until I add the magic word - "please".

"Please" is in Chinese; and it would feel awkward for Cantonese speakers to say such an official word in daily dialogue. But to gweilos, it is an everyday word. So, now I am learning to beef up my sentence to "would you please take the garbage out?"

'Huh?' = May I beg your pardon please?

Even words that do not have a real meaning could be the cause of misunderstandings. "" is one of the many examples. In a Cantonese conversation, when I could not hear someone clearly and I want him to repeat what he said, it is just natural and practical to say "?" Then the other person would repeat himself.

The closest English spelling of "" is "huh". To an English speaker, when someone says "huh?" with a questioning look or with a frown, he would "hear" something different, which is, "What!? What are you talking about? That's ridiculous!" After I learned how differently we interpret the sound "huh", I have to stop my impulse and replace "huh" with some English phrases like "sorry?", "pardon?", "I beg your pardon?" or "Sorry. Would you please repeat what you just said?" (So wordy...)

When I referred to my two-month old niece with the pronoun "it", my bf was shocked. He said, "You can't call the baby 'it'! She is a person! She has life!" I laughed and said, "It is what my English teacher taught me at school!"

Well, it seems a lot of the things we learned from school do not really apply to everyday life. When I started going out with my bf, I did not only feel that I was learning English all over again, but I also felt that I was learning the art of speaking all over again.

At least you could have said something nice...

He took me to Ireland last year to show me where his parents lived. After a few days of traveling he asked, "What do you think about Ireland?" I said, "It's too cold to me. And I don't like the food here!" As a Hongkonger, I simply told him what came to my mind first, which would naturally be the two most prominent things - the weather and the food. But he laughed and said, "This is such a Hong Kong answer! At least you could have said something nice before telling me the truth!"

A few days later, we drove to Dublin and met a friend who had moved there (from Hong Kong) just a week earlier. My bf asked her what she thought about Dublin. She said, "It's dirty. My first impression is that the streets are very dirty." I was pleased, because that showed that it was just the way Hong Kong people speak in general, and that I am not "rude" by Hong Kong standards.

Have you had dinner yet?

The more he makes friends with Hong Kong locals, the more he comes to understand the differences between Cantonese and English speakers. At the beginning, he would tell me how people surprised him by asking questions like: Are you a Christian? How old is your girlfriend? Are you planning to get married soon? Do you want kids?

He said, "It was the first time we had lunch together. And they are asking me all these personal questions. Not even my family members would ask me these." After spending two years in Hong Kong, he now understands that those questions are not regarded "personal" by Hong Kong people. To us, these are ice-breakers that help start a conversation between acquaintances. Even more so, they serve the function of "greetings" between friends! It is not uncommon that whenever I meet some friends, the first thing they would say is, "When are you getting married?" It is just like asking, "Have you had dinner yet?"(等於問:「食咗飯未呀?」)