Books In Beijing, Chinglish, And Sentences For Women

You know what they always say: when in Beijing, go to a bookshop. A statement so beloved and clichéd it has its own range of tea-towels. In any event, I’m not one to mess with international law, so upon arrival in Beijing, fresh off the train, I made it my business to find such a bookshop, and went trekking through the shopping district by night.

Books In Beijing, Chinglish, And Sentences For Women

And what a bookshop did I find. The Wangfujing Bookstore is absolutely massive. I’m sure in China it’s probably considered a sad megalith of commercialism, reviled by vast swathes of book lovers: but I didn’t have that much time in Beijing, so I was glad to find all the books you could shake a stick at in the one spot, over five floors of booky wonder.

One of the first things I noticed was that fiction book covers were very different from those we’re used to in Europe. They featured hardly any pictures. Rows and rows of white spines, which barely differed from each other, ate up shelf space as far as the eye could see. It seems in China that one really doesn’t judge a book by its cover.

In the travel section, I looked up some books on Ireland, to see what they were saying about us. This would have been a much more profitable investigation had I been able to read a word of Chinese, but still, it’s the thought that counts.

Books In Beijing, Chinglish, And Sentences For Women

I’m sure it’s saying we’re lovely, etc

I then made my way to the textbook section, which is where I noticed the second thing, which was also the thing which left the greatest impression on me. It concerned some ideas about how women speak English.

Just take a look at this terrible photograph I took of a university-level textbook for students of the English language. Now, I may be out of the educational loop nowadays, but I’m not sure what value this exercise is attempting to provide in terms of linguistic abilities.

Books In Beijing, Chinglish, And Sentences For Women

Quite apart from being highly amused trying to answer any of Question 1, I got a real laugh from imagining a classroom of earnest Chinese students sitting around, discussing Question 2.

Except perhaps not the women, who at this point have presumably learned to shut up – a lesson learned early on in the course (no doubt in a module called “English For Girls 101: Shhhhh!”)

Later in the same book, they used a piece from an American linguistics professor for reading practice. Deborah Tannen is best known for her studies on gender differences in communication style. I’m not entirely sure that she foresaw questions derived from her work such as “At home, who talks more, the husband or the wife?” – but who knows? Perhaps the Chinese have better insight into American linguistics professors than I do.

Books In Beijing, Chinglish, And Sentences For Women

But when it all boils down to it, is there any difference between the Chinese learning English with the aid of such bonkers teaching aids, and the hours and hours I spent in school learning to write to French campsites, asking for an electrical connection to the caravan I would never stay in?

Probably not. And after all, as long as it results in the command of another language, husbands should be allowed to make all the important public announcements they like, while their wives talk the hind legs off domestic donkeys.

Still, it was refreshing to get into a lift the following day, and find a product of English study in China – the most charming notice I had ever encountered in any lift anywhere in the world:

Books In Beijing, Chinglish, And Sentences For Women

And you know what? I did not frolic, or spit, or meddle with the lonely button. Neither did I allow myself to use the telephone to cry for help, no matter how much I wanted to.

I simply looked to my husband, mentioned something trivial, and watched with pride as he ignored me completely before striding forth to use his manly man’s voice to speech out loud in a public place.

Who says travel doesn’t broaden the mind?

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  50 comments for “Books In Beijing, Chinglish, And Sentences For Women

  1. February 4, 2018 at 9:32 am

    “You are banished to the sofa.” There’s a sentence only handed down by a female judge. Not that it’s ever been said to me, you understand — I’m posting for a friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 4, 2018 at 10:35 am

      Your deep empathy for your friend is commendable, John. It’s almost as though you too have been traumatised by what was done to another. I hope the couch at least was comfortable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. February 4, 2018 at 10:41 am

    To be fair , John is short. Well he is sort of short. Although it belies any understanding of the English language to suggest either men or women would swear when the train is late ‘again’. Both genders adopt more of a resigned but accepting shrug these days, but that’s probably on the syllabus of a much higher level course. It’s a divine idea though…

    Liked by 3 people

    • February 4, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      I wish I’d been paired with you to do these exercises, James. Everything would have been so much clearer. Well, sort of clearer. I am compelled to tell you (by both the Russians and the Chinese) that their trains are never late, so I can only assume that sweary trains are only late in English. Or are they? I really couldn’t say on a public forum.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 4, 2018 at 8:43 pm

        I think the point is really that the Russians and the Chinese would be upset if a train was late for a second time, necessitating the use of the word ‘again’ (or the Russian/Chinese equivalent of ‘again’) because lateness is such a rarity that for it to happen more than once would be genuinely ‘swear’ inducing. But for an anglophone lateness is commonplace so less like to result in offensive language. Nonetheless, the phrase in question is still a useful phrase for a Chinese person to learn so that they can express dismay at our appalling trains when they visit. But I’m still not sure that helps with the gender question…

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 4, 2018 at 9:18 pm

          An excellent point well made, James. And a good example of report-talking, if I may. Is it because you is male, I wonder? But I suppose that’s another chapter. Is it?

          Liked by 1 person

          • February 4, 2018 at 9:30 pm

            I believe it is the next chapter, yes, and I must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed your rapport-talking throughout this exchange.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Tom Gould
    February 4, 2018 at 12:41 pm

    Beijing is an amazing place. Anyone who goes there should walk the Great Wall of China as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 4, 2018 at 2:00 pm

      And so I did, Tom, although it was difficult to make my way through the hordes of selfie-takers along the wall. It’s the new defence mechanism, I hear – keep out the angry invaders by installing an army of narcissists along an artificial border. Genius, really, when you think about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. February 4, 2018 at 2:15 pm

    For a moment I thought it said ‘John, it’s short’, which is an entirely different sentence. I don’t have my glasses on though, and I suppose my womanly womanness was overwhelmed with all the sentences I’m allowed/expected to say. And not even a small frolic in the elevator/ I must say I’m disappointed, Tara ;-D

    Liked by 2 people

    • February 4, 2018 at 4:19 pm

      Ooh, I much prefer your sentence, Helen! I can think of a myriad of reasons why only a woman might say “John, it’s short,” rather than the alternative. In fact, I think you just won at Internet today, so I’ll let you away with admonishing me on my lack of frolicking 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. February 4, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    What’s that about trying to leave the elevator via the top? At 5’2″ I’d have difficulty doing that, even if I wasn’t massively overweight – and anyway, aren’t most Chinese short, like John?
    Good to see that stereotyping goes on internationally (let alone in the biggest by fart nation) – and that people watch a lot of ‘Die Hard’ type movies!!! 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  6. February 4, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    I think I would have failed that English class, Tara. I like seeing how skewed perspectives are about other countries, and that applies to just about everyone everywhere. And no frolicking in the elevator. What does that mean? No prancing? No hanky-panky? No tossing flower petals from the backs of unicorns? Fun post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 4, 2018 at 9:24 pm

      Whatever the frolicking is, Diana, it’s a hell of a lot more fun if it’s forbidden, so I have to say I’m right behind the Chinese on this one… and if you’re going to fail any class, I think this would be an excellent one to pick. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  7. February 4, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    The Lift instructions took the sting out of the language instructions. I know elevators all round the world can talk now, but this is the first one I’ve come across to issue warnings about its own emotions, fears and cravings. Novel by Elevator next?

    Liked by 2 people

    • February 4, 2018 at 9:27 pm

      If it is, Hilary, I bet you it’d be written by Haruki Murakami – unless we get there first. Sentient elevators feeling depressed about the behaviour of society. I reckon we can sell this as a metaphor for EVERYTHING.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. February 4, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    I love this and have had a good laugh as I always do when I read your posts, Tara. I couldn’t help but think the writers of the textbook could have improved the remarks uttered by women by printing #8 in ALL CAPS. I would think if no confession was eminent when spoken calmly in #7, the repeat interrogation would be in a MUCH LOUDER VOICE. Maybe accompanied by an arm twist around the back. Which won’t be much of a problem since John is so short.

    Liked by 2 people

    • February 4, 2018 at 9:31 pm

      I like your train of thought on this, Molly. Perhaps the problem is that Chinese characters can’t be written in capitals. Or even italics. No wonder women aren’t allowed to speak in public. There’s no room for nuance, and everyone knows we never say what we mean. Perhaps maybe.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. February 4, 2018 at 10:50 pm

    Not sure which is more entertaining, the blog-post or the thread of comments that followed 🙂 great post, wish I had something clever or funny to add to the thread!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 5, 2018 at 10:09 am

      Don’t you worry, we’re suckers for compliments around here! Keep ‘em coming and you might just keep the savage commenters sweet 😆

      Liked by 1 person

  10. February 5, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    How long do you stand in a bookshop over there trying to figure out what to read? I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing to be surrounded by white spines for people who’s eyes are normally caught by covers! Looks like it was a crazily excellent experience, but just one question, did you really not frolick? Not even a little bit, when the security’s eyes were averted, because they were watching the guy spitting in the elevator and trying to stop Bruce Willis climbing out of the top of it?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 5, 2018 at 11:06 pm

      I beg your pardon. Not even a second’s frolicking did I allow myself. I accomplished this Herculean effort with the aid of a little light tutting and frowning at a small child who was attempting to hit Bruce Willis in the eye with a fidget spinner. We all have our ways.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. February 6, 2018 at 2:36 am

    Oh wow. And they say women hold up half the sky in China. Clearly not in the eyes of the writer of that book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 6, 2018 at 5:10 pm

      That’s a beautiful expression, Penne – perhaps it means that women are okay to shoulder half the burden, as long as they don’t talk while they’re doing it?!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. February 8, 2018 at 1:31 pm

    Love the “Shit. The train is late again.” Berlitz wouldn’t allow that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 8, 2018 at 1:45 pm

      Maybe they should revise their business model, Conor… Just think of the market they’re losing out on, eh?!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. February 8, 2018 at 4:13 pm

    Although I was both amused and shocked at first, I then realized that’s how many Westerners expect Arab women to act. I have no doubt this is a great source of amusement in the Middle East, as I have friends who are married to Arab women and it’s all a trap: those women are as feisty as can be.

    Which makes me wonder if that’s how Chinese women are expected to act, or it’s genuinely how the Chinese imagine Western women behave.

    Great, now I need to find a lonely elevator to frolic in, to clear my head after all this heavy thinking…

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 8, 2018 at 10:48 pm

      That is a lot of heavy thinking, Nick. Although being a man, you could do worse than to write it into a speech and deliver it to an adoring public audience. Just a thought. (A small one. A small, womanly thought. That’s all.) 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 9, 2018 at 10:48 am

        Definitely one of the perks of being a man: I can speak in public and not just in the bedroom. As for “a small, womanly thought”–surely, all womanly thoughts are small? Much like certain parts of certain men’s–nah, scratch that thought.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. February 11, 2018 at 9:24 am

    It’s a divine idea that you can’t frolic in an elevator 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 11, 2018 at 11:51 am

      It is indeed, Eva. And doesn’t it just make you wan to frolic all day long?!

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 11, 2018 at 4:04 pm

        Absolutely! Next time I get in an elevator I will definitely frolic. But in my mind that involves running through a meadow so I’m not sure exactly how that would work in such a small space 😊

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 11, 2018 at 9:02 pm

          Hmmm, that does put you in something of a quandary. Perhaps try one small shrub to begin with?

          Liked by 1 person

  15. February 13, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    I’m a few days late here but it’s a good thing because OH my goodness – the abundance of laughs down the length of this page! I wonder whether Chinese people laugh at our translating efforts too? Do they first have a good giggle before playing imported board games from the West? Regarding that first exercise it totally mystified me but I’ve just read it again and now I completely understand what they were getting on about, not only is John short but he speaks in shorter sentences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 13, 2018 at 7:27 pm

      You are very wise, o Liberty. In fact, I now have an uncontrollable desire to find 100 taller than average people; 100 shorter than average, and a control group of 29 parrots in order to conduct a sentence- length statistical extravaganza. Does our height or the colour of our plumage in fact determine our speech patterns? Watch this space.

      No, not that one. This one.

      Liked by 1 person

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