The day I sat down to begin this post I had just walked in from the newstand across the street, where I’d had a funny conversation. I wanted to buy a copy of the China Daily, China’s nationally-run English-language newspaper, for news about the tragic train crash on the Beijing-Qingdao line. But at the newsstand, when I asked the woman behind the counter in my most polite Chinese if she had today’s China Daily, she shook her head.
“I have yesterday’s.”
“No, we don’t have it.”
“What time will you have today’s?”
A few days earlier, I was walking out of Silver Garden – the store where we go to stock up on hard-to-find imported food items like breakfast cereal, cheddar cheese and microwaveable popcorn – when the woman behind the counter gave me a knowing wink and slipped something into my bag. We’d become friends the day I reminded her that I still owed her money from a previous visit, and I had a feeling I knew what her present was. Sure enough, when I got home I pulled out a small jar of Del Monte Hamburger Relish. It was my second in two weeks. I’d like to tell her that it’s just not selling because someone in town has yet to stock the ground beef that goes with it, but I’ll probably just continue filling our fridge with relish instead.
Living in a medium-sized Chinese city as a foreigner is a process of continual discovery, a process that is tied not only to language and culture, but to mundane day-to-day encounters and negotiations as well. Some of the rules you discover as a foreigner apply to everyone: push your way to the front instead of lining up for things, ride shotgun with cab drivers to keep them company, be prepared for some serious secondhand smoking in public spaces, and enjoy watching daily NBA highlights on city buses. But other pecularities apply especially to you. For instance, you’ll know you’ve been spotted when small children, and sometimes adults, let out an excited call of “waiguoren!” (foreigner) in your vicinity. If you’re strolling through a park or any tourist attraction, be prepared to be part of that attraction – you will almost certainly have your picture taken with multiple strangers. In more everyday locations, long, curious stares are commonplace, and remember that for you, the named price may be 600% or more higher than the actual price, so you will need to bargain harder than the locals.
But beyond the myriad situations that are a source of constant discovery, there’s one unique and dependable feature of life in China that seems made to entertain any native English speaker. Known locally as “Chinglish,” the special brand of English practiced by Chinese merchants and would-be marketers (to gain cachet with their customers) is a source of humor like no other for us native speakers.
Consider the notebook I bought recently, simply because its cover declared: “This is the most comfortable notebook you have ever run into.” Or the “Navigable Cookies” Lacey and I picked up to snack on while traveling. Or the “Body Photography” apparently available down the street. Here are some of my other favorites so far:
On an airplane wet wipe:
Wet turban needless wash.
On a hotel sign:
Free Bird House.
On a beer label:
Laoshan Beer is new, trendy and energetic. Every gulp is a fresh feeling that brings a lot of excitement and fun to every occasion you enjoy with friends.
In front of a housing development:
Quality Model – Vulgar Sales Center Center New Open
On another hotel sign:
Feeling of Family Business Hotel.
My favorite, next to a ticket booth for a famous temple in Qingdao:
HALF PRICE FOR OLD MAN WITH CREDENTIALS. ADMISSION FREE FOR DEFORMED MAN WITH CREDENTIALS
Sign over a coffee shop:
Racy Taste Coffee
From my Comprehensive English midterm:
Complete the following sentence: “I like people who . . .”
. . . like me.
. . . wear red clothes.
The ozonosphere is being broken by the tail gas.
In a bookstore:
Make Friends By Means of Books True Feelings Last Forever
And finally, if you look closely at the sign in the picture below, complete with cloud-belching smokestack in the background, you will see the words:
Clean Energy Supply for Better Environment