All change, please!
This post has been updated and is now on a new version of this site.
This notice will remain online until 20 September 2016.
Despite my increased presence outside of Beijing this year, as a plan to explore this weird, at times wild, but always wonderful world of ours, I’m still involved in improving railway English for China’s railway system for 2014, and I’ll keep my “non-rail” identity (as in: not working as an official member of rail staff), as I’ve done so in 2013 and in initial efforts back in 2012.
I have to say that China’s railway system has remained mixed with regards to the English enhancement programme. On the one hand, I suspect those who drafted out earlier versions certainly aren’t pleased at their “hard work” being wiped out by a non-PRC citizen interested in pro bono enhancements to society, and the dispute over “Should we call Qingdao’s new station “Qingdaobei” or Qingdao North?” is still at times unsettled. On the other hand, though, we are seeing much improved English at an increasing number of stations around China — customers are now told to “please allow passengers more space” at ticket officers, and riders are being told at Ji’nan’s west station that “international passengers must book at manned counters” (instead of previously no English at all; although even here I suspect the English can still be improved further).
For 2014, these are my goals, which are slightly less on “new features” and more on “maintenance and sustainability”:—
The idea behind this is: once the whole system is set up, at least for the immediate-short term, it really doesn’t matter where I’m based: everything’s Internet-based, so it doesn’t matter as much if I’m in Beijing, Bristol, or Boston.
The guys behind the “North Jing” (Beijing) are masters in particularly easy and remarkably cheap methods aimed at apparently solving problems. Want more people in the Subway and off the roads? Make Subway fares incredibly cheap. Still too many cars on the roads? Implement road rationing policies. Still still an excess of motorised wheels? Institute a cheap lottery system which is impossible to win for most of us. Still still still too many cars? Decrease the plates available for the lottery and reintroduce the “odd / even plate” rule on (unpredictable) Bad Air days. Oh and also increase penalties for those caught resisting the rules.
An excess of Chinglish in the city? Get some retired academics with limited overseas experience into a makeshift “experts committee” instead of — what can I say — qualified people. (For rail English, I have one as well — but these are award-winning professionals and seasoned travellers in the group instead of people who slipped in “through the back door”.) Make them translate a 50+ page book they wanted to do about “proper English for locals” from standardised English into Chinglish. (I’ve the copies on my hard drive: after submitting the ones I improved and put a lot of effort into, the “revised” ones by a Chinese professor who must have had just limited experience overseas were so “Chinglishified”, I ended up staring at a wall, thinking if my head should head there (pardon the pun) because of this shock of total, utter disbelief.) Oh, and in case you thought Stop Mouth at this train station with service to “Xuzhoudong” (Xuzhou East, but with the cardinal direction illegally using pinyin) station were anything out of the ordinary — well, let me tell you this: City authorities are floating the idea of lowering the total score for English on standardised university entrance exams, so they will in future weigh less. That’ll be 100 points instead of the 150 points. The sad practice of bored academic sermons, sadly, will see no changes.
City Hall is thus saying: To solve the city’s Chinglish problems and to “make English easier”, we are downgrading its importance. Guess what: that’s a mere formality. Still part of the exams will be — I swear — questions where locals see only one correct answer, but where two correct answers will be comprehended by native speakers of English from Europe and North America. I swear, this will be utter hell to all students. Downgrading English doesn’t solve the problem: it merely aggravates it. You will still be stuck with the average local unable to respond to your simplest-of-all-demands in English. You will still be stuck with bilingual essays that earn an A+ in Chinese — and merely, at best, probably a C in English. Oh, and not to mention the massive plagiarism in the academic world. How do you identify a paper from mainland China? Chinglish throughout, terrible grammar, and a way of thinking that just befuddles the average overseas academic. Is that what you want — or want to keep?… and I ask that to city authorities both before and after the points downgrade. Can you swear in the name of
God Marx that you can totally annihilate, say, Chinglish, by downgrading the importance of English in the university entrance exams? (I really can’t see how that could work.)
Always willing to listen to a second opinion, I put this question forward to my class: Do you think we should downgrade English? Nearly all students sounded a clear NO — some were outright furious at the idea. It seems the new trend in China is to “throw up” on problems instead of solving it. HSR train crash (July 2011)? Downgrade new lines from 350 km/h to 250 km/h. Worsening smog? Force people through ridiculous lotteries just to get a car. Chinglish conquering Beijing? Downgrade the importance of (proper) English.
I’m pretty sure that, some years down the road (when “more competent” people with a fully functioning brain take over), we’ll take a second look at history — and regard that those who have run our failure of a capital in these years (at present) the same way as we looked at George W. Bush when he left office.
There — I did it this way because having two appearances of “makers” in the same sentence would sound kind of weird, no?
Lest you thought I aped Steve Ballmer, nope. It wasn’t an excess of some North American comedy either. Let me tell you guys one thing: the worst thing than can happen when your mouth is less than an inch away from the microphone — is to bore the living and dead
#beep out of people. I’m not kidding you. I had those terrible lessons in my BEc years in university because that teacher sat in one of these positions:—
and delivered an (un)academic sermon for 90 minutes straight. Jeez. After 15 minutes, I gave it up and favoured a little Lonely Planet guide into Hong Kong.
Whenever I speak I favour a handheld mic for the simple reason it gets me away from the lectern. First, you’ve got to move your eyeballs, so there goes all that (potential) drowsiness. Second, you can actually do crazy things with the thing, as you’re no longer chained to any one place in particular. You also have total control over the crazy noises you do. These days in China, presentation counts.
And the content, too, by the way. Today in my two-hour lingo sermon (which thankfully had nobody sleeping; this is a major problem here in China), I proceeded to rip open Chinglish at face value and tell people what made this weird lingo concoction of ours up. Inspired were about 60 or 70 people in the increasingly internationalising (that’s a word, I guess!) community of Tuanjiehu in eastern central Beijing. Yep, senior citizens, but also young kids from universities in town. Turns out there were a few things of note:—
which was why we’ve Chinglish on our signs. I didn’t feel any better when I spotted a few more in western Beijing’s district of Mentougou (one of these folks I know who might be in charge of Chinglish is going to get a pretty stern warning from me soon), but rest assured — I’m here to get rid of the whole thing.
Don’t you feel much more at ease when you’re told to let passengers exit first instead of this random bit?… “After first under on, do riding with civility…”
Picture credit: Co-host Alison Zhou. I do radio programmes with her every Wednesday afternoon from 15:00-16:00 Beijing time. You can’t miss us; we’re also to be heard online at am774.com.
That’s because I started helping my school clean test-tubes and beakers when I was about 15 over lunch — when I had nothing better to do after finishing my quick helping.
I’m not kidding you. It might seem a helluva strange reason: how do you mix cleaning lab gear with optimising English? But that’s the thing: it’s all about helping out and not “asking for attention”. (My friends in China tell me that this was the thing that was done half a decade ago. These days, if you help out, you’d be seen like an outdated follower of Lei Feng (“the mythical Chinese guy that helped everyone”) if you didn’t leave your name on the thing.)
Like: As of late, one of the trains that’s used my optimised English, train D365 from Beijing South to Fuzhou, got commended by the official People’s Railway Daily. But you never saw any public mentioning that “it was David Feng’s idea to equip the train with bilingual service cards, and that David had to work and retweak the cards, time and again, to get it right, and that David Feng paid from his own pocket to get the cards made ‘for real’, because he wanted the thing on the train ASAP”.
I seriously couldn’t care more. The thing is, I’m helping out because of Chinglish on the trains. Honestly, when you’re told — Please don’t throw the rubbish into the dustbin — you know that something’s gone wrong. Where else can you dump that banana you’ve just devoured? Obviously, the windows are sealed; it’d be suicide to crack these things open at 380 km/h*.
So with China concocting more Chinglish than they’re eradicating it — the rails included — it’s about high time I stepped in to stop the mess. Regard me as the lingo-savvy street cleaner, always photographing Chinglish and always correcting it. For one thing, I don’t like it when my railways scream out with Chinglish on their back. (If you bang into me you’ll see I’m Chinese, irregardless which ID I hold. And I don’t like it when Chinese Railways has to make do with sub-par Chinglish.)
Wuxi East is a cool station, and they’re probably a little cooler with standardised, optimised English all over the place. But nobody’d knew they translations were David Feng works — I deliberately left all traces of David Feng-ness off the thing. Ditto with Xi’an North — if you spot optimised English, that’ll just me doing my thing, sans credits. Oh and the same with Hanzhong and Ji’nan West.
I’m helping the rails get their English in order. (As an assistant professor of English at a key uni in China, it’s about time I did something for real — combining what I teach with what I love.) I’ve been to 22 countries and territories and I know when they’ve right-glish hanging over you in station signs. Obviously, since this is China’s railway system, I’m basing my optimised English on Chinese national norms, but I’m also making an effort to get the English up to speed by consulting with how English is used the right way in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Switzerland, and the UK. (Forget the US — they dumped the rails a long time ago…)
I don’t expect to get paid for this; I’m also not after free rides. (I paid for 34,000+ km of rail travel last year.) It’s a bit of Menschness (a la Guy Kawasaki). I’ll be happy when I slip into bed in the evenings knowing that Chinese Railways have one less sign in Chinglish, and one more sign in optimised English.
For one thing, I’m already happy now that passengers on HSR services to Shijiazhuang are no longer told: “Please don’t throw the rubbish into the dustbin”.
That for one thing sure keeps the rails cleaner!
* Soon. (I’m optimistic.)
Worse: DON’T CALL ME “DOCTOR FENG!”… I have not yet been “christened” a “Doctor” since I have still got to get my final dissertation done right… a la KFC (“We do chicken right!” and stuff like that)…
DON’T CALL ME “TEACHER”, EITHER! In China, every last soul calls a teacher — well, “teacher” (老師). That don’t work out fine for your David here. He prefers folks to straight-out address him as David. Buck naked, we are all the same: we can all eat, drink, go to the toilet and take time off in bed. We’re the same be our skins black, white or yellow. So I don’t for a split second buy the fact that “a teacher is ‘superior’ to a student”. I don’t buy it.
I look up very well to the Western world, where you call a teacher by his family name, plus “Mr” or “Ms”. I look up even better to the world of “personal communications” (so to speak in jargon-ese), where David Feng is just simply “David”. Hence my preference for my students to outright call me David. I don’t want for a second to be referred to as Doctor Feng. It just confines me to that Ivory Tower I never wanted to be in at all. It’s un-Mensch, as Guy Kawasaki might say. A Mensch of a teacher realizes he’s an equal amongst all the other students.
I sure hope my fellow students can nick away some knowledge he or she will put to use one of these days, but I hope even more that chez my lessons, students and teachers can act as equals. In this long stroll in the Edu Trail, it’s much better if the head of the team doesn’t put off airs and acts more like a guy in the midst of a group than an absolute dictator leading it. That’s just my way of doing lessons: I don’t do titles, I do outright human language…