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lost in translation


One of the joys of living and working abroad is having the opportunity to learn a new language. I always think it is a wasted opportunity to not at least try. In my case, I often have no choice! Working in China is an amazing challenge that becomes a lot easier, and even more enjoyable, if you can master the five tones, countless words spelt the same but with different meanings, and the 50,000 characters...

My Chinese homework.

Learning languages doesn't come naturally to me. In fact, I am the black sheep amongst a family of amazing linguists (my grandmother being the queen ewe - she can speak nine different languages fluently!). Me? I speak VERY limited French, German, Spanish and Malagasy. I am proud however, to speak intermediate Indonesian. It is a language that I grew up with (I lived in Jakarta for 4 years). It is very easy to pick up and a fun language to speak. It has no tenses - and no tones!


I never thought I would see the day when I would be tackling Mandarin. It's like that item on your bucket list that never gets ticked off. I am determined to put a big fat felt-tip line through it when I have achieved the impossible (refer back to the first paragraph of this blog). In January I spent one month at a Hong Kong language school where I was learning Mandarin every day. In and around my studies, I explored this high-rise city, celebrated Chinese New Year and caught up with my sister, Bean, and friends. Hong Kong is a real treat, especially for those who are not yet ready to brave main China. Just make sure you have deep pockets!

One of my favourite things about living in a foreign country is the harmless but hilarious misunderstandings and misinterpretations (see below for some delights that were donated by my friend, Dom, and others I found on the internet). I love that you can have an entire conversation with someone and be talking about completely different things! In China this is very easily done if you haven't quite mastered the five tones. Take the word "ma" for example. Add the tones to it and it can mean "mother", "horse", "scold", "hemp", or be put at the end of a sentence when asking a question. From personal experience you don't want to confused mother and horse...

Whilst I was still studying in Hong Kong, Bean and I decided we would like to book the cinema room in her fancy apartment block. I have been roosting with her during my month of learning. She lives in a cute part of Hong Kong called Sai Ying Pun (in Cantonese). She has access to a gym, two music rooms, a swimming pool, a business zone and a cinema room. Yet to trial it out, we thought we would host a small movie night with friends.


Bean: Hi, I would like to book the cinema room please.

Staff behind the Club House desk: Oh. The room?

Bean: Yes, the cinema room...

Staff: Oh, okay. It will be 60 Hong Kong Dollars per hour.

Bean: I would like to book it for two hours please. Are we allowed to bring food in there?

Staff: Food? Oh. Yes. But only small pieces.

Bean: Small pieces?

Staff: Yes, small pieces.

Bean: Pizza?

Staff: Small pieces.

Bean: Does pizza count as small pieces? Can we bring pizza?

Staff: Oh. Yes. But people may complain...

Bean: Why will people complain?

Staff: Because they will see.

Bean: But the cinema room is private, right? Just for us?

Staff: Yes.

Bean: So, how will people see? I don't understand.

Staff: They will see. And then complain.

Bean: I really don't understand... WHO IS WATCHING ME EAT MY PIZZA?!


That was the gist of the conversation we had. We still didn't quite understand the problem but we went ahead and booked the room and returned two days later...


Bean: Hi, we are back! Is the cinema room ready?

Staff: Yes.

Bean: Can we just go down? Do we need a key?

Staff: Yes, all ready. No key.

Bean: So it's unlocked?

Staff: No key.

Bean: Great! Thanks.


We walked down the marble stairs leading to the cinema room only to find out that it was locked...


"So we DO need a key! I can't deal with this, sorry" Bean said as she sat down, exasperated. I was sent back to deal with the situation.


Caz: Hi, the cinema room is locked...


The staff member we had been speaking to had vacated the desk temporarily.


Second Staff: Really? I will find the key. But have you booked it?

Caz: Yes, we booked it two days ago.

Second Staff: Hmm...


*Previous colleague returns and the two staff members discuss something quickly in Cantonese*


Second Staff: Apparently everything is ready.

Caz: But the room is still locked...

Second Staff: What room?

Caz: The cinema room!

First Staff: You book classroom.

Caz: What? Why would I want a classroom? I spend ALL day in a classroom! Wait, you have classrooms in an apartment block?

First Staff: Classroom is ready.


This was getting confusing so I whipped out my newly acquired Mandarin (even though in Hong Kong they speak Cantonese. It was worth a try).


Caz: Wǒmen yào kàn diànyǐng (我们要看电影).

Second Staff: OH! You want the MEDIA ROOM!

Caz: Oh my goodness, yes yes yes! PLEASE!

Second Staff: You haven't booked it.

First Staff: Do you still want your classroom for two hours?


Ah, the joys of miscommunication!


E: carolyn.thompson.17@ucl.ac.uk | T: @gibbonresearch | IG: gibbonresearch

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© Carolyn Thompson 2017. All rights reserved.

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