Ni Howdy! Foreign languages are so, well, foreign
BEIJING (AP) Ni Howdy! AP's Warren Levinson, who is covering his 8th Olympic games, is blogging daily about the sights and sounds of the host city.
TUESDAY, Aug. 12, 2008
The thing about foreign languages is that they sound so, well, foreign.
To an outsider, everything said in French or Italian tends to sound more romantic than it really is. Everything in German seems to sound more threatening. In Mandarin, it's the volume that's exotic.
At an early morning fruit and vegetable market in a narrow alley near the Forbidden City, buyers press in on heaps of peaches, beans, tomatoes, celery and yams, conducting transactions at a volume that would deafen a trader on the Chicago Merc.
To the outsider, it sounds like this:
"You moron! I curse your ancestors to the eighteenth generation!"
But he's really saying, "Hey! Try the cauliflower! It's really good today!"
MONDAY, Aug. 11, 2008
How eager are the Chinese to please?
"Hello!" sang out a voice at my elbow as I was waiting to cross a busy street. "My name is Ivy! Where are you from?"
Ivy was an eager volunteer who's taking time from an office job to work for the Business Club of Australia, an arm of the government in Canberra. She was so sweet, I did not have the heart to tell her that while her English was good, it was a little like talking to an audio tour.
"New York! New York is also called the Big Apple. New York, New York. The city is so nice, they named it twice. Many young people enjoy living in New York. There are always exciting things to do. They can go to the theater, to concerts and the museums any time."
I was looking for a shop where I could buy a bicycle. She took me to a supermarket. They didn't have any.
Just between you and me, I was relieved. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable riding in Beijing traffic on something purchased between the beans and the bok choy.
SUNDAY, Aug. 10, 2008
If you've ever browsed the fake designer goods on the streets of a big American city, visiting Beijing's Panjiayuan market is like tracing the Knockoff Nile to its source. The monster flea market is bursting with jewelry, scarves, purses, artwork, pretend antiques, toys, musical instruments ... I could go on. The tradition at this flea market is you haggle, which, when I'm feeling bold, I'm sort of good at and when I'm feeling shy, not so much.
Sunday was a shy day.
I fingered a dining table runner (sorry, honey, I was too overwhelmed to even focus on jewelry) and immediately the overfriendly proprietor was on me with a price, punched into a calculator. About $100. I shook my head and walked away -- isn't that how you haggle? indicate you're ready to walk? -- but she came after me, insisting on a counterproposal. I lowballed it. She made the international symbol for "you insult me and generations of my ancestors with your offer." I walked again and we were off. My favorite part of the negotiation was how she reached down to the floor to indicate how low she was willing to go.
Eventually, it was $45 and I'm sure I overpaid, despite her sign language demonstrating how elaborately the item was made. "Sewn!" was her one word of English. Still, it's a nice piece, and it will look good in our dining room -- or someone else's if my wife overrules my taste, as is her spousal prerogative.
Next week I'll go back for the jewelry.
SUNDAY, Aug. 10, 2008
I don't want to insult the New York City subway, which has made great strides after hitting bottom 30 years ago. But by comparison, the Beijing subway rocks.
For 2 yuan -- about 35 cents -- it's a smooth, quiet ride. With video. My train was showing Olympic highlights, interspersed with commercials for the subway. Thankfully, no sound.
One thing the New York and Beijing subways have in common is public address announcements in Mandarin. At least I assume it's Mandarin in New York. How else do you explain the noises that come out of the PA system on the R train?
FRIDAY, Aug. 8, 2008
It's probably just me, but the thing that may stand out in my mind about the Olympics opening ceremony isn't going to be Li Ning's spectacular Peter Pan act lighting the cauldron.
Or the 2,008 drummers, chanting and drumming on their ancient instruments in perfect unison.
Or the flashing light suits. Or the spacewalkers and the giant globe.
It's those wind machines.
When the Chinese flag was raised early in the ceremony, it snapped smartly in the breeze for the rest of the evening. So did the Olympic flag when they ran that one up the flagpole near the end.
Only there was no breeze. The air was hot, humid and utterly still, as it's been for most of the last week. It's starting to get the asbestos-like smell of a bad brake job. The way things are going, no one's going to have to worry about wind-aided track records.
Now, I know the Olympic opening ceremony isn't exactly a documentary. That Chinese scroll painting wasn't discovered by dancers rolling across a sheet with brushes attached to their hands and feet.
I know the Chinese have been doing their best to control the weather, trying to make it rain and not rain on command.
But still. There were 91,000 hot, sweaty spectators.
You had all that extra wind, and you couldn't blow any on us?
FRIDAY, Aug. 8, 2008
This is probably an easy target: Weird translations of Chinese business names into English. Still, I couldn't resist this one, on a Beijing beauty parlor.
"Focusing attention scalding with Sharon."
I'm sure being scalded by Sharon (or with Sharon) would focus my attention. I'm just not sure it's a service I want to pay for.
As a bald guy, my hair care experience is limited. Anyone care to guess what she means?
FRIDAY, Aug. 8, 2008
You could tell a big event was in the air even if the streets weren't blocked off for miles in all directions around the Olympic Green, or the troop trucks weren't disgorging loads of ramrod-straight soldiers.
The flags are out.
Unlike Americans, especially Americans post-9/11, the Chinese aren't that into flag display. You see them everywhere and on sale everywhere. It seemed every snack bar and newsstand was selling at least little ones on the eve of the Olympics.