Friday, October 21, 2011

East Meets West

"Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet . . . "

I love Kipling (and that poem).  He's right; East and West seldom really do meet -- it's more like they collide . . . and the results are often rollicking fun.*

I have had some wonderfully bizarre "East meets West" moments since coming to China.  Sometimes I find myself nearly shaking with laughter when these two completely divergent cultures wind up in the blender of life together.

There is, of course, Chinglish (really unintentionally hilarious translations of things from Chinese to English).  For instance, while out and about in Weihai with Maggie and Linda, I found a poster advertising a local area to tourists.  What the advertisement meant to say (as Maggie and Linda explained to me) is that the area is a nice place full of friendly people.  What it actually said, in English, was "Amorous Feelings Town."  As I pointed out to Maggie, "Well, that translation will certainly bring in some tourists!"  (She smacked me for that -- East smacks West.)

At the hotel in Penglai, there was that delightful translation of chicken hearts, "Hear Left."  ?!?!  An entire team of Chinese friends were unable to work out how that particular translation happened.

And a special favorite of mine is Chinese caution signs.  The word "caution" (or "careful") in Chinese literally translates as "small heart" -- which I find just utterly delightful.  It makes sense if you really think about the meaning of the word, but when you see it written out in English, it's something that always brings a smile.  And then sometimes I end up tripping or bumping into something, because the caution sign distracted me.

Of course, I don't want to sound like I'm unfairly focusing on the Chinese side of things -- there are plenty of examples of we Americans messing things up in translation!  I mix up words so often that I could probably write a book just on that experience alone.  For instance, in my very first experience directing a taxi driver in Chinese, I meant to tell him that we had arrived at my destination ("daole"), but instead I messed up and said "Goule!"  So instead of saying "Arrived!" I said "Enough!"  The driver, a very patient and kind man, was amused.

*I am not saying that East and West NEVER meet -- after all, three of my closest and dearest friends (adopted sisters, really) here are Chinese.  What I am saying is that even when they do meet, there is still so much difference that they cannot fully fuse.  Even though I am very close to my Chinese friends, we still often have to translate/explain social mores, customs, etiquette, jokes, and even compliments.  I love them dearly (and they love me back), but we will always have these deep cultural differences that keep our interactions educational and amusing.  

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"