Beijing Culture: Chinglish
Beijing goes Back to School: An Olympic Effort in English, Etiquette and Error Elimination
As Tiananmen Square's Olympic clock records the ever-decreasing number of seconds until August 8th 2008, Beijing is undergoing a frenetic makeover of city-wide proportions. Urban planners seem to have taken the Olympic motto "Faster, Higher, Stronger" to heart, as construction workers toil to complete Olympic infrastructure on schedule, and the city prepares itself for next year's anticipated influx of foreign visitors.
It's not only Beijing's physical environment that's changing. The Chinese government aims to use the Olympics as a tool for developing Beijingers themselves, re-molding them as smiling, service-oriented folk ready to welcome "waiguo pengyou" (foreign friends) to their city in English. Another Olympic motto, "Use Accurate English to Welcome the Olympics", highlights the importance that Beijing places on improving the city's literary and linguistic landscape.
"Olympic English" classes have sprung up in every neighborhood. Armies of senior citizens armed with an official textbook delightfully titled "Don't be shy, just try" attend English lessons every weekend. Police officers and taxi drivers have been ordered to master at least 200 English phrases. The goal is to have one quarter of the city's 14 million inhabitants familiar with their ABC before the Games begin.
To the disappointment of some Beijing expats, efforts are also on to rid the city of the scourge of "Chinglish". Hotlines have been set up for beady-eyed citizens who spot an English language-related mistake on a public sign to call and notify the authorities. As China's very own version of Pidgin English is still rampant throughout the capital, the phones are going to be busy.
"It's an embarrassment for the local residents, and our city," says Beijing English student Xiao Jie. "Every citizen who can read English has the duty to notify the relevant authorities about these errors, to make sure they are changed before the eyes of the world turn to Beijing."
There are plenty of local websites, like "Here we Go", that are dedicated to fighting the Chinglish battle. Hosted by China Daily, the country's official English language newspaper, the aim of this site is to correct English signs across the nation. It encourages volunteers who track down a mistake to submit a photo, along with the correct version and details of the location. Site experts show the way with articles on correction written from an erudite viewpoint.
The government-sponsored "Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Program" was started in 2002. According to Lu Jinlan, head of the organizing committee, by the start of this year the Program had "worked out 4,624 pieces of standard English translations to substitute the Chinglish ones on signs around the city."
Organization experts are also attempting to standardize the often baffling English names of Chinese dishes on Beijing food menus, offering help to restaurant owners via a website. While this is undoubtedly a huge and impossible task, anyone who has pondered over the ingredients of "crispy skin infections" or "man and wife lung slices" will surely be supportive.
Of course, Chinglish eradication is only a small part of Beijing's Olympic facelift - the city is gearing up to portray itself as a truly modern metropolis, and relevant official bodies are also doing their bit to stamp out uncivilized behavior. Neighborhood committees are being encouraged to teach members how to mind their Ps and Qs, and create "courteous communities". The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG) has pinpointed five areas where it feels the city's social etiquette is still lacking. These are: swearing, spitting, littering, disorderly queuing and not smiling.
However, the challenge presented by littering and spitting may soon be surmounted by the effects of highbrow debating and home improvement. In their drive to cultivate courteous citizens, Beijing has recently implemented a "morality-evaluation index" that ranks neighborhoods by their level of refinement. The competition between neighborhoods is fierce, as committees across the city compete to discuss such edifying topics as "Host the Olympics with civility" and "Smile in Beijing".
Sadly, and quite predictably, many of Beijing's well-intentioned efforts have had little noticeable effect to date. Taxi drivers complain that they are unable to retain the dozens of English phrases that they are forced to learn to pass mandatory tests. While the occasional cabbie is only too happy to practice his new-found language skills, it is still usually the foreign passenger who labors to decipher the driver's coarse Beijing patois.
Considering the pittance that most of these drivers are paid, it's hard not to feel sorry for these middle-aged men struggling to pick up what they missed in the classroom first time round.
English signs and menus across the city remain a source of considerable bewilderment to those unused to decoding Chinglish, and persist in entertaining those accustomed to the vagaries of translation in this country. Subways, elevators and ticket queues continue to amuse, amaze and frustrate the foreigner in equal amounts.
Nevertheless, it would be churlish to deny the fact that the big event of 2008 is transforming Beijing both architecturally and temperamentally. Whatever the outcome of this Herculean social and urban development project may be, it's hard not to admire the Chinese for their drive and determination to succeed. If a few foreign visitors have to resort to their Mandarin phrase book, does it really matter?