Thursday, June 25, 2009

Being Bilingual

By Chip Tsao | published Jun 25, 2009

China-bashers love to lash out at the nation over issues such as human rights and party corruption. How wrong would they be if they insisted on mocking the Middle Kingdom from an ideological macro-perspective, but miss out on all the details?

I crossed the border from Macau to Zhuhai last weekend. I was elated upon seeing a few of the signs they had on display at immigration and customs. Only by being observant will you find a sight that could bring you to the brink of tears, fully convinced that our Motherland has truly made some progress—no matter how slowly and imperceptibly—toward modern civilization, or in official terms, toward the dream of a more “harmonious society.” Yes, there are the usual signs and reminders in both Chinese and English, like “Goods to Declare,” “Foreigners Queue Behind This Line,” and more grammatically accommodating warnings such as “No Photograph” (despite all the progress supposedly gained from the Beijing Olympics). Some are interesting in other ways. Considering there are no plural nouns in the Chinese language, and “Ladies and Gentlemen” may still sound a bit odd because we Chinese commonly addressed each other as “comrades” just a short time ago, the large signs on toilet doors saying “MAN” and “WOMAN” look a bit threatening. But then I noticed the sign I found so pleasing, a flashing digital banner above an immigration lane that simply reads, in Chinese, “Please Do Not Shout.”

Unlike the other signs and notices that are bilingual, this particular sign is only in Chinese. The Zhuhai authorities have apparently been very smart in recognizing that English translations of such reminders are simply unnecessary, for anyone well-educated enough to speak in English would automatically have some training in social manners. This could serve as a good model for the Hong Kong SAR government. In Hong Kong, we see bilingual signs that sound insulting to English-speakers, such as “Do Not Forget to Flush the Toilet After Use” or “Please Do Not Spit” at shopping malls, or the famous Australian voiceover at the cinemas that says, “Pirate recording is illegal. Criminals convicted of such a crime will be prosecuted.”

By the time you are able to understand such phrases and sentences in English, wouldn’t you already have sufficient hygiene training and moral common sense? The Zhuhai immigration and customs authorities obviously assume so, and find it more economical to simply drop the English translations. This slogan is aimed exclusively at the Chinese. Please do not shout. They realize the fundamentals of a problem that add together to create a global perception of what “yellow peril” really means. I cried out “Hallelujah!” as I crossed the border.

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