Changzhou, China

This Is A Hot Town

In Observations on November 30, 2010 at 9:10 pm

One of the many materials available to Chinese students of English at our high school is a monthly publication called “The World of English” (Yingyu Shijie). The small periodical publishes English short stories side-by-side with their Chinese translations, and also provides footnotes written by a “reading guide” to help explain tough passages.

In the November, 2010 issue, the first story is Hemingway’s “The Killers,” in which two men hijack “Henry’s lunch-room” in an attempt to kill one of the restaurant’s regular patrons. In one passage, the killers try to order drinks:

“Got anything to drink?” Al asked.
“Silver beer, bevo[1], ginger-ale,” George said.
“I mean you got anything to drink[2]?”
“Just those I said.”
“This is a hot[3] town,” said the other. “What do they call it?”

I glanced down the page at the footnotes. The line “This is a hot town” would be hard to explain, I thought. Sarcasm was not popular in China.

3. In American slang, the word “hot” can mean “active,” or “bustling”.

A good start, I thought. I kept reading:

But apart from this, Americans can also use the word to mean “dangerous”. Therefore, when the man in the text says that the town is “hot”, he is actually suggesting that the city is a crime-ridden, dangerous area.

Well, not quite.

Yingyu Shijie is a magazine for Chinese students who want to practice their English. Its footnotes are not always accurate.

Sarcasm is not absent from Chinese culture, but it is used differently; among close friends, and usually in a very exaggerated manner. Of course, it should not be surprising that there are cultural differences here — there’s no obvious reason that saying the opposite of what you mean should be funny.  But even though I recognize this is true, this cultural gap still gets to me. Sarcasm as it is used in English just doesn’t work in Chinese.

Here’s an example. In Chinese class one day, we were studying the colloquial Chinese word quan bao, which means “to take full responsibility for.” As model sentences, the teacher had us repeat phrases like “in my house, my mother takes full responsibility for cooking” and “I’ll take care of cleaning up after the party.” Then she asked us to guess the meaning of another sentence: “Oh, that cake you bought? I’ll quan bao!

The teacher confirmed our guesses: this sentence was an offer to eat someone else’s cake.

“So, just to make sure – this is a sentence you’d use humorously, right?” I asked. “You wouldn’t actually eat the cake.”

“What? No,” the teacher said. “Maybe the cake doesn’t taste so good so you offer to eat it.”

I thought this over.

“Alex, in China, when we say we will do something, we mean it,” she said. “Otherwise, what kind of person does that make you?”

A humorless one, I thought.

But characterizing the Chinese as humorless would be wrong: the Chinese laugh as much as anyone else does.  One of the phrases I hear most often here is “xiao si wo le” (literally “I’m laughing to death!”), similar in meaning to “LOL” but actually used in real life.  Chinese xiangsheng, a type of comedy often translated as crosstalk, has a long history behind it and is often hilarious. In one xiangsheng performance I saw online, for example, a man complains about his bike: “Everything on the damn machine makes sounds! Well, everything but the bell!”

But for some reason, classic American sarcasm falls on flat ears here.  You will get no laughs for talking about how nice a day it is when it’s actually below zero, or telling a lazy worker not to overwork himself.

I have slowly learned to rein this in when speaking in Chinese, but in English I still use the sarcasm I’ve used all my life. It is enough of a cultural and linguistic phenomenon, I think, that anyone studying English ought to at least understand its usage. Unfortunately, mastering sarcasm – and the situations under which it is appropriate to use it – is not easy.

One day an American friend and I were taking the elevator when a Chinese man walked in. “Hey, you guys,” he said in English.  “Are you both American?”

“Yes,” we said. “Are you an English teacher?”

“No. I’m a guidance counselor for the students who want to apply to American colleges, you know.”

“Oh, your English is very good,” I said as we stepped out the elevator.

“Really? Because I hardly ever get a chance to use it.”

I was somewhat taken aback. Yes, it was an excellent use of sarcasm; but did he know how rude it was to use it here? The conversation continued:

“So, I heard you are going to my colleague Sonya’s house for Thanksgiving?”
“That’s the plan.”
“What are you going to do there?”
“Eat, probably. Not a turkey, but some other Thanksgiving food.”
“I see. And will you drink alcohol?”
“Uh,” we hesitated. “Maybe? It depends on what she offers us.”
“Oh yeah, because that’s completely legal, right?”  he said.

And there it was again. And this time too it came across as rude. I don’t think he knew this, though: he had learned that sarcasm was humor, and was trying to be funny in front of these two American students.

This sort of thing is why it is impossible to learn a language solely from a textbook.  What’s polite, what’s rude, and what’s funny: all of these things are important parts of a language that are crucial to making friends and functioning normally in a foreign tongue. So in addition to learning grammar points and memorizing vocabulary lists, I guess I’ll have to start paying special attention to when the Chinese laugh and when they yell; what language makes them happy and what language makes them sad.

As if I didn’t have enough on my plate already.

  1. I would fit right in! These days irony and sarcasm don’t feel natural to me, but I like to think I otherwise have a functioning sense of humor.

    By the way, great choice of WP template; it’s probably my favorite.

  2. There is something called “humble” in Chinese culture and history. It could probably explain a part of your concern/discovery. Digging deeper into it would possibly offer you a new angle. Starting small implies a great “potential” to master the whole.

    • Hi Jie,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m not sure I understand though. Do you think that the Chinese aversion to sarcasm, at least among people who are not close friends, springs from traditional Chinese modesty?

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