While the world watches Beijing this summer during the Olympics, writers and other communication nerds should keep an ear out for language. Or, at least, an era.
I traveled in China three summers ago, and came across hilarious typos—the bedroom slippers at the tall, shiny New Era Hotel in Kunming read, "New Ear Hotel"—and infinite other boners. An urban cafe boasted in big letters, “Fabulous Food and Coffee All by the Here.”
There was also some good propaganda. A sign in a smoke-choked steel town:
Gao Gao Xing Zing Shang Ban
Ping Ping An An Hui Jia
Happy, Happy, Go to Work.
Return Home With Equanimity
But the most confounding difference between Chinese communication and Western writing is in their opposite attitude toward clichés. While Western writers are discouraged from larding up their prose with familiar phrases, using familiar idioms is a sign of mastery in China.
Our government tour guide in the Southwestern town of Lijiang spoke clear English, but unwittingly had the group chuckling as he referred to his wife as “my better half,” his 93-year-old grandmother as “no spring chicken,” the local police as “stuffed shirts,” disastrous and deadly summer flooding in China as “par for the course” and hotel prices as “highway robbery” (because “you pay through the nose”). Upon leaving the tour group one evening in LiJiang, he told one member of our group to “sleep like a log” and another to “sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
This tour guide clung to his English idioms like a drunk to a lamppost!
I have read reports that China actually hired a fleet of copyeditors to clean up Beijing. But I, for one, am going to be on the lookout for the ridiculous, the hilarious and the unintentionally wise phrases, like the sign the U.S. women's soccer team took as a motto during their trip to China several years ago:
"Don't use panic."