In China, valiant attempts at the English language surround you on all sides. While China is, of course, home to the language (Mandarin) with the most number of native speakers of any tongue worldwide, the country has paradoxically decided that English is the language of the world. In a phenomenon which is, in many ways, a manifestation of China’s profound inferiority complex, English – both written and spoken, coherent and nonsensical – has taken on a certain status and prestige, an international sophistication which Chinese, in the minds of most, can only dream of attaining.
As such, English surrounds you in China, especially in the larger cities. Storefronts, shirts and all manner of consumer goods are branded with differently coherent levels of English. While a small portion of this “English” is comprehensible, much more is confusing or hilarious nonsense, or else a random mixture of the letters of the Roman alphabet. Yet no matter whether it makes sense or not, it remains (at least in the minds of most) English, and therefore somehow superior.
Go into a shop and ask for a “shirt with English on it”, and you’ll be presented with a load that will soon overflow your arms. Few, however, are anything that any native English speaker would ever wear. Some may bear legends which are grammatically correct yet stunningly, hilariously inappropriate in an English-comprehending society, such as the shirt my father purchased while visiting this summer: “It takes more than 23 muscles to smile, but it only takes 4 muscles to reach out and bitchslap that motherfucker. I love you with all my heart.” Others may be lists of random phrases (“Abraham Lincoln. 1873. Love. Why?”), while others make some degree of sense (“Happy Market. Buy some oranges!” “Best Party Ever!!! But you were not there…”) and still others no sense at all (XIJAOSIJHDOIJH AOSIDOISDJOAI). Some are intricate, bearing entire articles lifted from wikipedia and misprinted onto fabric (“The show leopard is an ahinal mative to the Tipedan Pateao”), while others bear the “SAMPLE: NOT FOR RESALE” legend, indicating that the factory owners in Dongguan or Shenzhen decided that – as long as it was English – not to mess with what was evidently a good thing. And the above categories disregard the plethora of misspellings and errors on fake brand-name products, among which Apple attempts (iPheno, iPbong) are particularly prominent.
While, in my semi-remote plateau paradise (or so I believe it to be), valiant attempts at English – as elsewhere in China – liberally adorn clothing and the like, English signs have typically been few and far between. Based on my travels, this generally seems to be true of China as a whole; few English signs are in evidence outside of tourist towns. And while my town has long been featured in guidebooks as one of Qinghai’s top attractions, so few people make it to Qinghai anyway that, aside from the (very) occasional tour group, there are rarely more than a couple of foreigners in town. So this July, we were surprised to learn that the county government would be replacing all of the signs for shops and businesses with a new, standardized model which declared each business’ name in three languages: Tibetan, Chinese and English.
We learned about this anglification of Rebgong in advance of implementation only because we were intimately involved in the process. One day, our former waiban – who is nowan official at the Prefectural Bureau of Commerce – knocked on my colleague’s door. In his hands was a list of every commercial establishment in Rebgong; while the signs were already translated, said the official, they needed to be proofread, and quickly. Which we proceeded to do in approximately 30 minutes. Some of the most egregious errors I changed; some I left for posterity. Some businesses listed had not had their names translated into English.
“Why is this one left in Chinese?” I asked. ” ‘渔人码头’ – that’s easy enough,” I said. “Fisherman’s Wharf!” I started scribbling the name frantically onto the paper when I heard the official giggling. I looked up.
“We’re not translating that one,” he said. “If we did, foreigners would think it was some kind of seafood restaurant instead of a place to buy girls for the night.”
The diversification of the Rebgong economy notwithstanding, we finished our proofreading as quickly as we could and let the minister go with a list of names in presumably real, error-free English. Needless to say, due to time constraints the proofreading was a bit sloppy; errors and nonsensical constructions abound. But my thoughts were less on what we could have done better and more on why the town had consciously decided to anglicize itself (or at least its signs) to such an extent. The flow of foreign tourists is not nearly so great as to necessitate such signs; if appearances were what the town was going for, they could have started with a full-on trash cleanup and a repaving of the streets. But it’s not just about need or appearances; rather, it is about creating an atmosphere – or even just the hint of an atmosphere – of prestige. What is it about English (or attempted English) that gives off an air of luxury, glamor and worldliness? Why was this seen – above street paving, rural water projects and waste management, to think of several immediate needs – as a project that must be done?
So does such signage improve the town or the lives of those who live here? Does it even change or improve the experience of visitors? To both, I will answer a resounding no. But does it make Rebgong a high-class international kind of place, a famous destination with all the worldly airs of a Paris, New York or Tokyo (or at least of Lijiang or Shangri-La)? The administrators would hope for even a soupcon of that feeling. But as the signs have started going up over the past week or two, I have been pleasantly surprised by the complete lack of such an atmosphere invading the town. This failing is partially due to the paucity of the notion that English letters breed internationalism and prestige, but also due to the fact that the English signs are being installed in that classic Chinese manner: haphazardly. As none of the people actually putting up the signs can speak or understand English, letters are plopped onto the signs’ blue backboards with all the thoughtful order, sense and grace of a yak stampede. Going by the time-honored adage that something is better done quickly than well (or…), words are being disemboweled as letters are moved, switched and inverted into every conceivable position. A townwide shortage of T’s has left things even more comical – and has, for me, laid to rest the notion that Rebgong could ever be the internationally prestigious destination its officials crave for it to become.
But – to keep everything positive – the misinstallation of the signs truly has everyone happy. For while I am pleased that these attempts at internationalism have largely failed to succeed, the officials – nearly all of whom can’t read English themselves – remain under the illusion that the signs are proper English. Thus, in the Anglificization of Rebgong, everyone wins. For in the signs, we can all read and interpret our separate, wildly disparate hopes and dreams for what this town and region will become.