Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Last Saturday, I was once again doing my 'performing monkey' (sorry, I mean 'veteran English teacher'; no, wait, 'distinguished overseas educational consultant' - that sounds better) shtick for "the shrill girl", the maddeningly flaky Chinese publisher I complained of last week. Yes, it was the promotional presentation I discovered they were hoping to film for free.

Quite apart from that awkward little fracas, the event had already nearly miscarried because I'd initially gone to the wrong venue.

The shrill girl had told me "Zhongguancun bookstore"; but she hadn't told me if this was actually the name of the building, or if it was a sufficient description because this was the only well-known bookstore in the Zhongguancun district. She hadn't given me the address, or any directions on how to get there - but at least she had this time remembered to SMS me the address in Chinese, so that I could show my taxi driver. The driver appeared to recognise what I showed him - but evidently the "address" in Chinese was just as ambiguous as what I'd been told in English, and he took me to the wrong bookstore.

He dropped me off in Zhongguancun outside a huge building with 'Haidian Book City' emblazoned on the outside of it in English. "This is the place," he said confidently (Zhongguancun is a sub-district of the Haidian quarter of the city, so the address/description we'd been given seemed to fit). I called the shrill girl to let her know I had arrived. She said she would come straight out to collect me. 10 minutes passed. Nothing happened. I called her again. She was starting to panic. She wasn't sure where I was. I explained again. Another 10 minutes passed. I called again. I explained again where I was. Eventually, the penny dropped. Apparently, there are several large bookstores in Zhongguancun, and I was supposed to be at another one. Fortunately, it was only a few hundred yards away.

Strange, though, that it had never occurred to the shrill one that there might be some scope for misunderstanding with the imprecise "address" she had given me. No, no - this is China. This kind of shit happens all the time.

Yesterday, I was working for this bloody woman yet again; this time, speaking to some students at a university.

She had told me it was to be the Beijing Technology University (and had again sent me an "address" in Chinese to assist the cabbie). My taxi delivered me to the Beijing University of Science and Technology (an unfortunate acronym!). Now, there really are dozens and dozens of universities in Beijing. Many of them I do not know the names of. Many of them have dangerously similar names. I immediately began to fear that I might be in another 'wrong university' situation. Happily, this time I wasn't.

The Chinese rarely seem to have any awareness that consistency of naming or word-order can be so important in English; that, for example, the Beijing University of Technology might not be the same as the Beijing Technology University, and very probably isn't the same as the Beijing University of Science and Technology. Heck, Chinese being the lexically impoverished language that it is, I wouldn't be that surprised if 'technology/technological', 'science/scientific', 'machinery/mechanical' and 'engineering' could all be rendered by the same word. How many confusible university names might that give us? Quite a lot.

And yet Chinese people - well, the shrill girl in particular - never seem to pay much attention to repeating the names of buildings or institutions accurately, even in Chinese; and they are often completely ignorant of the offiicial English translations of these names.

It does make finding your way to a place for the first time an anxious and vexing business.


Froog said...

On the subject of unfortunate acronyms - wouldn't it great if there were a Beijing United Technology, Telecommunications and Media University of North China (Haidian campus)?

If only, if only. That would be the Prince Of Acronyms. Oooh, is that another band name I've just hit upon??

Anonymous said...

Kudos to you for lasting there for so long. I suppose it's something you come to expect and plan for, but it would still be hard in my opinion. On our trip to Thailand we once had trouble finding 11th street because it wasn't actually between 10th and 12th. Go figure.