Chinglish, pt. 2: Why I Can’t Stand *Small Yellow People*

Welcome back! My apologies for the delay – things have been crazy here on the other side of the world. 

Last week, we discussed how Chinese transliterations of foreign words lean towards nonsensical lunacy – “Grape Tooth” for Portugal, “Chinese Fortress” for hamburger, and the like.

But, as much hair as I’ve pulled out trying to guess what things like Stamp-Degree-Nun-West-Inferior mean (Indonesia, FYI), I get it. The Chinese writing system is what it is, and only traitors like the Koreans and Japanese would dare to modernize the script in the name of higher literacy rates.

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No, today I’m here to bitch and moan about the other kind of Chinglish – the kind that so often pops up when foreign words are *translated* rather than transliterated into Chinese. Fair warning: after two years immersed in the Chinese education system, my opinions on this subject are pretty battle-hardened, but they’re just that – opinions. If you’re a sophomore in anth. 101 (see: world-renowned expert on cultural relativism), you might find my concluding thoughts a little prickly for your taste. Ok 吗?Ok了.

Let’s dive in.

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This is Baymax, your personal healthcare companion. If you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few years, he’s the adorably awesome robotic nurse/Iron Man from the smash hit Big Hero 6.

Here’s a few trailers and clips from the movie in German, Japanese, Icelandic, Arabic, and HindiYou’ll notice, controversially, that they all refer to Baymax as “Baymax.” I’ve never spoken in any of these languages about Mr. Max, but I’m gonna go ahead and assume that’s how they would refer to him in conversation as well. And why wouldn’t they? “Baymax” is a made-up name for a comic book character and even the depths of the internet doesn’t seem to have any strong opinion on why he’s called that. Maybe since he’s a healthcare provider, he’s named after a Med-Bay. Maybe “max” is because he’s big and awesome. The point is, it’s a nice, friendly, universally-pronouncable name that everyone is happy to use. 

Well, almost everyone: the Chinese have opted to call him Da-Bai/大白, or “Big White.”

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It’s not just kids, either – absolutely everyone says it. Not once have I heard the word “Baymax” uttered here unless someone’s trying to quote the movie – because (tellingly) finding properly dubbed Chinese-language versions of western movies can be next to impossible. Case in point, try to find a Mandarin-dubbed clip from Big Hero 6. I’ll wait. 

Attempting to convince students that no, Big White is not what anyone over the age of 5 should consider an acceptable translation of “Baymax” turns out to be only marginally more effective than trying to break down a brick wall with one’s forehead. Sadly, I ended up abandoning the persuasive approach and just started docking points from anyone who said it in class. 

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[pictured: proper classroom motivational techniques]

“Big White” is just the tip of the iceberg. Any word that’s even remotely new to China (that doesn’t get one of those transliterations I mentioned in pt. 1) gets this even more cringeworthy treatment – a literal I-Say-What-I-See approach. Remember these guys?

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They’re called – again, 100% across the board  – 小黄人, or small yellow people. And let me tell you, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve witnessed a room full of 8-year-old Chinese kids screaming the phrase SMALL YELLOW PEOPLE over and over again with literally no sense of irony.

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[sorry, fellas]

The list goes on and can apply to just about anything that wasn’t part of the average ancient Chinese citizen’s vocabulary. Turkey is fire chicken. Giraffe is long neck deer. Computer is electricity brain. Santa is Christmas Old Man. Traffic light is red green lamp. Carrot – really getting straight to the point I’m trying to make – is non-chinese-radish. 

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I know, I know: who cares? So Chinese takes a lego-like approach to building new words. So what? Anyone who’s taken an Intro Latin class knows that every language- especially modern American English – is created with the building blocks of other languages. There are doubtlessly tons of english words with equally silly etymologies that I simply don’t understand because I don’t speak Greek, Latin, French, German, etc. For example, giraffes obviously aren’t native to english-speaking countries – we got the word from the Italian giraffa, which in turn came from the Arabic zarafa, and that’s as far down the rabbit hole as I feel like going.

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But see, that’s the point. The building blocks of Chinese are ONLY CHINESE. The language (if I’m wrong, please let me know in the comments) almost never truly adopts new words from other languages and that causes real problems. Sure, it may seem harmlessly hilarious when people call the minions “small yellow people,” but it’s less funny when you realize calling every single foreigner an “outside-country-person” is just as ubiquitous and impossible to argue with. The word “country” really just means China in the same way an old-timey British dude might say “for King and Country!” The word “language” absolutely means Chinese without a qualifier. Kids take Language Class (Chinese), English Class (English with a Chinese teacher), and Foreign Teacher Class (English with a Foreigner). I’ve made it a habit of straight-up asking classes, “我是人吗?外国人真的是人吗?” “Am I a person? Are foreigners really people?”, and you’d be amazed at how wide-ranging the responses can be from a roomful of lovable innocent children. I’ve never seen, experienced, or heard of any culture where the Us Vs. Them mentality is so profoundly obvious from the bottom-up.

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[then again, apparently I’ve missed some stuff…]

And look, I’m not complaining (well, I am, but bear with me) – the seeming inability to accept that other languages are equally real hurts China, not me. Parents regularly give their kids English names like “Eason” or “Kaire” or “Aymee” and get pissed when I try to gently explain that they got the spelling wrong. High schoolers explain to me that I’m writing incorrectly because I don’t put little serif hook-thingys on my i’s and t’s, and obviously I don’t know as much about English handwriting as their *real* teacher who’s never left the country.

When I edit English document for Chinese companies, I’ll get into insane arguments about some common phrase or idiom or whatever because Baidu Translate told them something dumb and there’s just nothing I can say to persuade them that maybe Baidu Translate is wrong. Most recently, they handed me a set of classroom dialogues in which the warm and friendly instructor was named “Scylla,” and I still haven’t been able to convince them to change it.

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Am I reading too much into the implications of “Big White” and “Small Yellow People?” Probably. Call me crazy, but I can’t help drawing a connection between a language that refuses to budge an inch in the face of globalization and a nation whose most iconic landmark is this:

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Again, these are just my semi-informed opinions. Take ’em with a grain of salt (an expression we got from another language).

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