Anya Schiffrin

A Chinese view of Savannah

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 19, 2012 15:51 UTC

A recent New York Times story about high-end U.S. retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany marketing directly to wealthy Chinese visitors reminded me of some of the extreme Chinese shopping I’ve witnessed in Europe. Stopping in the Zurich airport branch of Sprungli on my way home from Davos, I saw a Chinese man (who spoke no English at all) spend $900 on Swiss chocolates. Offered a free taste by a saleslady as a courtesy for buying so much stuff, he waved it off. Apparently he was not actually a chocolate lover but just buying gifts for some lucky friends. On the tube in London I saw Chinese women en route to Heathrow with the most enormous Louis Vuitton shopping bags and clocked the resentful glances of their fellow passengers. It reminded me of how Americans abroad used to be rich and universally loathed.

While Chinese tourists in the 1 percent may be living large, for those in the 99 percent travel is often less luxurious. Evan Osnos’s clever piece in the New Yorker last year described his trip on a tour bus with a group of Chinese rushing through Europe and eating Chinese food. A Chinese friend once admitted to me that she regretted missing out on Italian food during an organized tour through Italy; in Peru a tour guide told me that the Chinese were famous for bringing their own food. Clearly there is an opportunity here for a canny tour operator, and based on my last weekend in Savannah I’d like to suggest that Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans be added to the list of must-sees for the nouveau Chinese tourism market.

After my trip to India with my parents last November went off mostly without a hitch, I was ready to travel with other people’s parents. So when my young friend Dandan announced that her mom – who teaches at the Shanghai Maritime Engineering College – would be making a maiden voyage to the U.S. in time for Dandan’s graduation from Columbia, I invited them both on a girly weekend I had planned with Nguyen To Hong Kong (another Columbia student I spend a lot of time with) as a last treat before the two young women graduate and leave the U.S.

The ladies took an energetic approach to Savannah sightseeing, and we went through the guidebook at a rapid pace. No stone was left unturned, including the carriage tour of the stately, tree-lined squares, the tours of the old houses and the torpid alligators in tanks at the Crab Shack (too lazy to even open their mouths to eat the “treats” offered by tourists).

Adding to the amusement was the homespun commentary provided by Dandan’s mother and translated by Dandan as her mother does not speak English. (Dandan’s mom is named Hong, but is no relation to Hong Kong.) Hong’s name means red, and her sister was named “blue.” “My parents have no imagination,” Hong said, explaining that her enterprising sister changed her name to “intelligence.”

The joys of Chinglish

Anya Schiffrin
Oct 24, 2011 16:09 UTC

We roared with laughter yesterday at David Henry Hwang’s latest play Chinglish which is in previews at the Longacre Theatre after a successful run in Chicago. Anyone who has been to meetings in China, done any business there or met a government official will recognize the hilarity of the miscommunication that results from two countries divided not just by culture but by language. The folly of poor translation has not been rendered so incisively since the famous scene in “Lost in Translation” in which the extensive instructions given by the Japanese director of a whiskey commercial that Bill Murray is acting in is reduced to just a few words.

Chinglish is about the adventures of a befuddled businessman from Cleveland who tries to get a contract to produce signs for Guiyang City’s new arts center. He is taken to meet a Minister who can hand out the contract but the Minister is being pressured by his wife, who insists that the contract be given to her sister’s husband. Not wanting to offend, the Minister dissembles, the vice minister steps in and the play effortlessly moves to its final conclusion. Along the way there are promises of long meals which are interrupted by the inevitable trill of the cellphone, massive misunderstandings about everything and translations that just make it all the more confusing.

The interpreters veer from repeating things that aren’t mean to be said. Translating the friendly remarks about the Midwest made by officials of Guizhou province, which is in the center of China, one interpreter announces, “We despise the coastal cities of Shanghai and Beijing.” Key points in the contract negotiations are muddled up by an interpreter who turns out to be the Minister’s smart alecky nephew and the help given by an English teacher turned  business consultant only makes things more confusing.