74 - Overheard | Scoins.net | DJS

74 - Overheard

So I’m walking home from the supermarket, the usual bread and water unusually replaced by biscuits and beer partly because it is CNY today. I’ve just had breakfast, thanks to Mr McDonald and failed to do a killer sudoku in the usual time allowance. I’m walking across the pavement between the shops and the track (football field sized space, narrower but longer) and I hear the not-so-dulcet tones of an American on the phone. It slowly percolates that this is the case, since I generally tune out the background noise. I’m sure the locals are as sick of the New Year muzak that has played continuously since Christmas and is still played today, oddly competing as the same song has been recorded in different keys. Indeed, it is odd that even inside Walmart I have heard the same piece about a tone apart; the mind boggles as to how this might be so.

Anyway, I’m slowly noticing that this voice is using English. I hear “I would file a complaint”, “Fire his ass”, “They don’t like it when you complain”, “Get down there”, “public utility” and “show them where to stick the phone”. This is clearly a call across the city – though given the volume the guy at this end is putting out, he didn’t really need a phone, since he was operating at Chinese and at American volume. The person at the other end can’t be Chinese, from the “they don’t like it” quote, yet the person on the other end must have been making Chinese meek replies and comments for the speaker (shouter) was working himself into a fine lather. Because of the volume I probably had 20 seconds of awareness of this conversation. I looked up at the right moment to see a Colonel Sanders look-alikefifties, white beard, glasses—on the balcony outside one of the upstairs (second floor, here) restaurants open for business on New Year’s Day. First rabbit, et cetera. I’ve seen him around but not conversed. A wave, returned, as he launches into another tirade including lots of ass. Why is it that Americans have such a fascination with asses? Is it because they have the biggest on the planet (probably)? Does it indirectly refer to some sexual practices I don’t want to think about? British swearing is almost entirely about sex or damnation or both; many of the words we use have had a gender transfer (that is, when you find a really good dictionary you discover that the mild epithet you have been using for boys is actually a pregnant fish or camel. (Twerp, though Wiktionary denies this; I remember the very dictionary I was using at the time). And that what you thought was a mild displacement for a more obvious swearword is actually worse when you uncover the etymology. Not on your nellie, twat.

The accent is placed by me as south and east in the US of A. The circumstance suggests that there is a modicum of politesse in removing self from restaurant for the call, and the volume—which argues against politeness for a Brit—just confirms good reason for that.

The choice of language suggests altogether too much time in China, thoroughly convinced that no-one follows your use of English. How untrue that is: Just in the last two days I’ve had sentences of beautifully enunciated English offered in my direction. At the same time, for all the apparent time here, the speaker has misunderstood the chinese culture – or at the very least, has a remarkably different experience from me. If he is advising someone to go down to the mobile provider to make a complaint, that is a very non-Chinese thing to do. Yes, they don’t like it, but that is because the complainer is losing face (and how), so the complained-to also loses face, by being party to the conversation.

Second, there was no checking of information and no translation into the culture here, Phones, for example, run out of service provision if you don’t ‘feed the meter’ but they don’t tell you how much is left in the account unless you bother to ask. So most people use the service until there is none and then go pay for more. Confusing, unnecessary use of phones, but very chinese. They like making traffic – it make them comfortable. In the same way, they will go shopping every day where a westerner would shop once a week. That says something about urban densities, too. Threatening a chinese has no effect but raising your own blood-pressure; they are required, culturally, to grin at you – guaranteed to incense a westerner to greater extremes; they then must widen the grin and recursively exaggerate the situation. The solution, for a westerner in China as much as it is for a Chinese, is to go ask what you have misunderstood, to make your problem become their problem and (a western bit of thinking, here) to help them see a solution. In practice, if a solution is easily available then, no matter what the social rules say, that easy route will be taken.

Doing things such as keeping your account in credit by going to add money to it when you feel like it, or are going past the shop – this confuses them completely and one is left explaining all by pointing to the western face and saying, basically, “Look, odd person, different culture”. Ideas such as there being advantage to having extra cash in the company hand are, indeed, foreign; so much so that the staff do not see this as sensible and will actually advise against it. To westerners, odd beyond belief.

DJS 20110203

Americans: Overpaid, oversexed, and over here, as my mother used to say.
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