The following is a post I wrote for my previous blog when we were in China adopting our daughter in late 2010. Remembering it makes me laugh – maybe it’ll do the same for you.

When one culture attempts to translate their language into another for the benefit of tourists from a second culture, there will inevitably be some degree of confusion.  In some cases, that confusion can manifest itself into high comedy.


The photo above was taken next to a lakeside path in a park here in Guangzhou.  Chinese authorities posted it, in their attempt to warn the clumsier English speaking tourists of the drop off at water’s edge, but the warning comes across in English as more of an encouragement for the individual to erect some sort of personal physical defense, rather than simply a warning to watch one’s own stumbling feet:

“Danger at the bank. Please keep the danger away.”

After reading the sign, I felt a strange urge to stand at water’s edge and tell passersby in an authoritative voice, “BU YAO!”, which is Chinese for “No, thank you.”  Not much in the way of a direct translation of “Don’t go near there”, but I think under the circumstances, I may have got my point across.

Today our group took taxis to Shamian Island, which is (according to those in the know) where all the best shopping is hiding.  Our cab driver got his directions from the doorman at our hotel, and presented us at our destination in record time.  Other folks in our group weren’t quite as lucky.

One couple, who were getting uneasy with the lack of familiar landmarks along their driver’s route, tried to intervene verbally, asking the driver hopefully, “White Swan Hotel? White Swan Hotel?”  The driver responded by stopping in front of a random hotel several blocks from the White Swan and stating confidently, “Hotel!”  The couple took their cue and got out, walking the rest of the way.

Another couple wanted front door service to our agreed upon rendezvous, which was (where else for a bunch of Americans in a foreign land) at Starbuck’s.  As their driver got tantalizingly close to the right neighborhood, they also tried verbal encouragement.

“Starbuck’s?” they asked hopefully.

“Stop here??” the driver responded.

“No, no.  Starbuck’s!”  they reiterated.

“Stop here?!?” he repeated.

“No, no!  Starbuck’s!!”

Eventually they got him to drop them off right in front of Starbuck’s, but by that time the rest of us were already gone.  OK, we weren’t actually gone – we were inside trying to order designer coffee with Italian names from Chinese baristas while speaking English.  I asked for my standard 16 oz Americano – with cream.

“Whipped cream?”  the barista asked helpfully.

“No, no.  With cream.”

“Whipped cream?” he asked again, as he struggled to keep his ‘Stupid American’ expression from making an uncomfortable public appearance.

“No, no. Just cream.”

“Just whipped cream, or just this cream?” he asked, indicating a bowl of little sealed plastic cream cups behind the counter.

“That cream,” I said, realizing that trying to explain that I wanted him to leave room in the cup so I could pour in my own cream from the big carafe was going to be a losing battle.

Later, my wife was trying to explain to a merchant that she was looking for little stands to rest chopsticks on during meals – ingenious little porcelain or wood rests that work wonders for keeping the business end of your chopsticks out of the ashtray between bites.  It took several minutes to get the point across correctly – after the merchant had shown off every forty-piece set of chopsticks in the shop.  Ultimately patience won out, and the little chopstick kickstands were located, but we very nearly had to replace all our silverware at home with handsome bamboo utensils.  I think the lady would have sold us a gross of the things if we’d been in her shop another minute or two.

Earlier in the week, my wife misplaced her room key.  Re-tracing her steps, she figured that it fell out of her pocket in the second floor internet café where she had been visiting with one of the other moms.  So I headed downstairs to ask the clerk if anyone had found it.

“Yes, yes,” he said with a smile.  “Here is password.”  He presented a white board with a series of numbers written on it – the password (or key – duh!) for the free Wi-Fi service.

“No, no,” I said.  My wife lost her room key here, and I was wondering if anyone found it.”

The clerk’s face registered understanding, and he started rooting around behind the bar.  “It is here!” he said triumphantly, coming up empty handed from behind the bar and pushing the Wi-Fi password closer to me so I could see it better.

“Oh, thanks!” I said, smiling.  “I’ll be back later!”

I never went back, even though the clerk was so helpful that I almost wanted to continue the conversation out of morbid curiosity.

There have been many other bumps in the road to understanding.  We’ve noticed that many of the folks here have trouble correctly pronouncing the variety of English words which end with an ‘us’ sound. For example, ‘Christmas’, ‘breakfast’ and ‘famous’ often come out as “Christmurse”, “breakfurst” and “famurse”.  Once we realized what was actually being said, it was easy to keep up, and the habit became sort of endearing.

So before you give in to the temptation to poke fun at somebody who doesn’t have perfect diction or pronunciation, try to remember that the people here speak MUCH better English than any of us speak Chinese.  The few words and phrases I’ve picked up while in China are barely enough to get by on, and if I don’t watch my pronunciation carefully, for all I know I may try to order an Americano and end up scheduling elective surgery.

“Grande Americano with cream, please.”

“Emergency appendectomy, no morphine? Yes, yes, it is here!”