Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Lost in Translation

The Chinese education system is a puzzling thing.  I've blogged about my student, Xindy, before.  Xindy is a whiz at memorizing words and chanting slogans, but she still doesn’t know why it’s probably not a great idea to rub your eye after that same finger was digging for gold in your left nostril just before.  Call me old-fashioned, but I am of the school that believes that manners should retain a place in everyday society.

Being cross-cultural, though, often makes teaching and learning manners tricky.  Not only do you have to translate cultures, but you also have to translate languages.  Here's a sticky situation I found myself in with Xindy.

Xindy leans back and rips a loud, long fart.
Grace:  (laughing)  Xindy, did you just eat lunch?
Xindy:  (learning back on the sofa with her arms tucked behind her head)  No.  Why?
Grace:  Well, after you do that, you should say, “Excuse me.”
Xindy:  (brows furrowed, still lounging on my sofa)  I should say what?
Grace:  You should say, “Excuse me.”
Xindy:  (sitting up)  What?  What does that mean?
Grace:  It is kind of like saying, “I’m sorry.”
Xindy:  But why I need to say this word?
Grace:  Because what you did is a little impolite.
Xindy:  What’s meaning this word?  Poligh?
Grace:  Im-po-lite.  It means "不客气的" (bu keqi).

And here's where I went wrong.  Technically, what I said was "not" (bu) and "polite" (keqi), but together, the phrase "bu keqi" is another way of saying "You're welcome"-- a phrase most Chinese students learn.  Now, I'm worried that Xindy will get them all confused, and the next time she farts, she'll try to be polite and respond by saying, "You're welcome," which in my home, would warrant laughter and joy.  Among mixed company, though, perhaps not so much.*

Our lesson in manners didn't end there, though.

Fifteen minutes later, Xindy is working on a dictation.
Xindy:  What you said before I should say when I… 放屁 (fart / fangpi)?
Grace:  Oh… “Excuse me.”
Xindy:  (smiling as a rancid smell fills the room)  Okay.  Excuse me.

*For the record, if you want to convey that something is impolite without saying "You're welcome," the correct term is "不礼貌" (bu limao).

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