Wednesday, Apr 26, 2017, 5:45 PM CST – China

Essay

Found in Translation

Somehow, in my mind at least, the word “fuwuyuan” is redolent with all the frustrations that many in China’s service industry gleefully inflict on their customers

Studying the Chinese language was never going to be easy. I knew that I would struggle with the tones and vocabulary before I even attempted to master the intricacies of the written form. My only hope was that the grammar would be as “easy” as I had been told. The one thing I had not anticipated, however, was the strange relationship that would develop in my brain between Chinese and other foreign languages I speak, especially English.

My brain has already come up with some tricks to avoid overheating. Applying Chinglish, or deploying Chinese vocabulary in English sentences, are both coping mechanisms. “What are we having lunch? Aubergines and mifan [rice]? What about fentiao [glass noodles]?” “Yeah, a wan [bowl] of each sounds good. Will you deal with the fuwuyuan [waiter]?” “Mei guanxi, pal! No worries!”

Lunch conversations tend to be the best ones, as you soon give up on trying to translate the names of all the specific dishes and cooking methods. Some of them would make no sense anyway. I mean, everyone around me now knows exactly what xianggan roupian is, and there’s no way that “scented meat strips” is a better name for it, particularly as it’s actually mainly tofu.

It is only a matter of time until you start assigning Chinese names to things that you once used English to refer to. Waiter? No, fuwuyuan. The literal translation of “service person” just sounds more respectful. Feeling unwell, but not desperately ill? Bu shufu, or “not comfortable,” is probably better than going all-out with “sick.” My brain decides which language best suits the situation, and employs vocabulary accordingly. For language purists, this may seem blasphemous. Surely if everyone was doing this, what would become of the languages that were being hacked to pieces? Even though linguistic borrowing is a universal phenomenon, switching out nouns for equivalents in another language seems perverse.

I would argue that Chinglish and its variants actually allow for something to be found in translation. “Waiter/waitress” and “fuwuyuan” are not the same. “Waiter” evokes the image of an elegant cafe – not the noisy student canteen where this appellation finds its more apposite home in China. No waiter or waitress worthy of the name ever moved you and your entire party to another table simply for his or her own convenience. Even better, the term is not gender-specific.

In that context, “dealing with the fuwuyuan” means much more than just ordering food – which is why nobody wants to do the job. This task means trying to attract their attention, explain what your needs are before they wander off, and trying to decipher their garbled or muffled remarks. Somehow, in my mind at least, the word “fuwuyuan” is redolent with all the frustrations that many in China’s service industry gleefully inflict on their customers.

The word shufu – comfortable – is mostly associated with “feeling well,” but its opposite, bu shufu, extends to all negative sensations, from cold to stress to abject disgust. When you’re not shufu, more often than not, your mind as well as your body needs to take five.

Some Chinese concepts, meanwhile, just work better in their original language. Mafan, at once a noun, adjective and verb, describes the full gamut of “troublesomeness,” from government bureaucracy to a wayward spouse. I believe all English speakers should adopt this handy term, that has no precise equivalent in translation. If a language other than your native tongue has a better turn of phrase, there’s little frisson to be gained from the schadenfreude of watching someone else struggle to express themselves.

Knowing enough Chinese, but not quite enough to rely entirely upon the language for communication, can often help one express the raw meaning of a sentiment with an eloquence the native speaker might struggle to understand. As fluency improves, this commitment to simple expression tends to fade, and we start seeking ways to shoehorn elegant verbiage into sentences, so much so that it might actually behoove us to simplify for the benefit of the listener, instead of stroking our egos.

In my view, steamrollering through brain freeze when trying to communicate in Chinese is far preferable to simply giving up – which often leads to one forgetting the word for “umbrella” in any language. Instead, we should let our minds make sense of the world through Chinglish, at least until we’ve practiced enough to shed our linguistic training wheels. That way, we can get directly to our point, and enrich our speech with a personalized flavor. Hao ma, pal?

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