Lost in Translation: Thoughts

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

I recently saw the movie Lost in Translation. My major in college was Japanese, I have lived in Kyoto for a year, and I still have friends there (both Japanese and foreign). So I had been looking forward to this movie for some time.

I liked the way the movie used language to alienate the characters, particularly in Bill Murray’s scenes — the Suntory photo shoot, the hospital visit, and the ridiculous talk show. There are no subtitles. The effect was a little spoiled for me because in each case I actually understood what the Japanese people were saying, but this really only added to the comic effect. (Here’s a translation of the first Suntory photo shoot to give you an idea.) I imagine a lot of the “acting” was really just improv between two people who really couldn’t communicate in real life.

(Of course, when I was laughing during these scenes and my girlfriend was only smiling, she wanted to know what was so funny, and then I needed to translate from Japanese to Chinese for her, which is a hard switch for me to make if my attention is partially diverted — which it was — so sometimes my “Japanese to Chinese translations” would come out as Japanese paraphrased in more Japanese. Oops. That really confused her.)

One of the reviewers on IMDb felt that the movie was overrated, and that Coppola largely ripped off Wong Kar-Wai. Interesting claim. I don’t know how much the movie was hyped overseas; I missed all that. I do know that I enjoyed the movie, but perhaps largely due to my familiarity with Japan on a personal level. I don’t usually enjoy Wong Kar-Wai’s movies.

One thing I hate about the American media is its neverending charade of “look how wacky those Japanese are!” The American media loves to find the most bizarre aspects of Japanese society and then exploit them. Yes, cultural differences are interesting, but the overall message that the media seems to be trying to convey is they’re not like us, and that can be dangerous. Lost in Translation presents cultural differences (and, indeed, even wackiness) in a way that seems very human. It didn’t annoy me; it made me smile. (Meanwhile my girlfriend, who has been to Japan but doesn’t speak much Japanese, was saying, “Haha, the Japanese really are like that!”)

I’d like to see Hollywood come out with more movies of this “being a foreigner in a distant land” variety. It seems like other countries do it a lot more. (I guess it’s because the terrorists, aliens, and natural disasters all converge on the USA every time, so naturally, that’s where we make the movies.) No, Midnight Express and Spy Game don’t count; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Hollywood movies that address the reality of expat life. I’m sure you could get something equally entertaining set in Germany, Thailand, Hong Kong, or even (gasp!) Mainland China.

[NOTE: I don’t pretend to be a movie expert, but that’s my take. I’d love to hear about other movies like this, or links to stories about Lost in Translation.]

Calling All Engineers

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but what about spite? Does it fit into the invention family somewhere?

I have this great idea for a new invention. It’s this box that attaches to the wall or ceiling of one’s apartment. The box emits sound exclusively in the direction of the surface to which it is attached, which is then amplified by conduction. Sound selections might include “Deafening Pounding,” “Metal Scraping Broken Glass,” and “Jungle Beast Armageddon.” It would come with a remote control for ease of use, which would also feature volume control and a timer function, so that the sounds could be programmed to play at any time of the day or night. The sounds could be played when the owner is not even home (but his neighbor is).

I can see the conversation now… “Oh, is my noise bothering you? Sorry about that, I’ve been doing some remodeling lately. It should only last a few more weeks. You were remodeling too, recently, weren’t you? I think I remember hearing it every single day, really early in the morning. Anyway, gotta get back to remodeling. Nice talking to you, bye!”

"Chinese" Tea

Last week I went to a school and taught some kids. In the few minutes before the class, I chatted with the principal. She asked if I would like a hot drink while I waited, and I gratefully accepted.

From the other room, she called out, “coffee or tea?” Tea, please, I told her. I heard another woman in the office commenting on how “foreigners like Chinese tea.”

Then the principal returned with my hot “Chinese” tea. Lipton.

Soy Sauce from Human Hair

I don’t know — maybe I missed it — but I haven’t noticed this story yet in any of the mainland blogs that I read. Several friends back in the States have mentioned it to me, and so have several Chinese friends. Yet Google News turned up absolutely nothing for all my searches. I finally found one very short article which discusses it (via Dan, via Fark.com, reportedly, though I can’t find the story on their site). That article is so short that I quote it here in its entirety:

China has ordered a crackdown on domestic ingredient makers after it was discovered one plant had been illegally producing a base for soy sauce made out of human hair.

Apparently this happened in Hubei province. The company discovered that human hair contains amino acids very similar to soy sauce. They could obtain hair from barber shops, boil the amino acids out, then add that to a water/brown sugar/salt mixture, add a little coloring, and viola! — “soy sauce” that meets China’s national standards, without the pesky fermentation process. This unorthodox method of obtaining amino acids came as a result of a huge demand for it in China.

Unfortunately for the company, besides just plain being a disgusting thing to eat, human hair also contains harmful substances.

A quote on “QS” (quality standards) from Beijing’s China Condiment Association Secretary, Bai Yan:

Previously, when the quality inspection bureau tested Beijing’s soy sauce products, more than 90% met the standard. Before that, it also tested the soy sauce from all over the country, and over 60% met the standard. Customers can use the majority of the output produced by official businesses. There’s no need for concern; it’s reliable.

For those living in China, the soy sauce brand name to avoid is 红帅 (hong shuai).

Chinese News Links:

  • csonline.com.cn provides CCTV video.
  • This link provides an (indirectly related) picture, but it’s the same story you’ll find in a multitude of Chinese news sites, originally published in 北京娱乐信报, and is also the main source for this article.
  • 繁体 editorial.

UPDATE: The story in English, via anonymous reader comment.

I've seen you before…

My company makes materials for teaching small children English. Then the company markets and sells those materials all over China. I assist in this process, also providing Chinese teachers with training, and occasionally I teach a class of kids myself. I probably only teach kids one or two hours a week. I really like this because I am able to keep a firm grip on my sanity (I don’t know how other teachers like Wayne do it every day!), but I am still provided with frequent reminders of the final objective of this whole English language resource production and distribution process.

Yesterday I taught a class of 5-year-olds. It was my first time at the school, so I first met the principal, and then she took me to the classroom. I arrived a little early, so the teacher there asked me to just sit down with the kids and wait a few minutes. Then she inexplicably left the room. So there I was, it not yet time to start class, surrounded by all these wide little eyes. And then the little mouths opened.

“Teacher, I’ve seen you before!” “Yeah, I’ve seen you too!” “Me too, I’ve seen this foreign teacher before!” “Really? You’ve seen me before?” “Yeah, I’ve seen you before!” “Me too!” “So have I!” “I’ve seen you before too!” “A lot of foreigners look alike to you, don’t they?” “…” “…” “…” “I’ve never come here before, so you couldn’t have seen me before.” “I’ve seen you before!” “I’ve seen this foreign teacher before!” “Me too, I’ve seen him before!” “I have too!”

They really are cute.

The gnomes, the gnomes!

Just yesterday, when I was hanging out with Michael, we were talking about apartment noise. Living in a colossus of a city, traffic is bound to create a lot of noise pollution. Fortunately, neither he nor I suffer from a very noisy apartment location.

One reason Chinese apartments can be very noisy, however, is not because of the noise from without, but rather the noise from within. When you buy a new apartment, it comes completely bare. A concrete shell. Walls, floors, everything — must be constructed. That makes a lot of noise. Hammers, drills, buzzsaws (?) — whatever. And noise travels all too well through solid objects.

Michael is in the unfortunate situation of having a lot of neighbors who are remodeling. He can never sleep in. I told him I was very lucky in that respect, because I rarely hear that kind of noise.

Well, wouldn’t you know it. I jinxed myself.

I made the difficult decision to sleep in today, but the noise started around 9am. I managed to sleep through it a while, fitfully. But it’s been going on all day! (It may be Valentine’s Day, but my girlfriend’s in L.A. I have little better to do than play Gunbound.)

It sounds like there’s a little team of friggin’ gnomes behind my walls, eagerly tap-tap-tapping their way into my room. First they were trying to come into my bathroom from the ceiling. Then they were behind the kitchen wall. Now they want to break in behind my bedboard.

Damn gnomes. I have no choice but to blast my music.

Familiar Strangers

I have been walking to and from work for the past two weeks. I need to be at my workplace at 8:30am. I get off work at 5:30pm. The walk is about 20 minutes. Routine.

On day one, as I waded into the flow of pedestrians, I started reflecting about all these people and all these routines. Shanghai has a huge population, but how many people are on West Nanjing Road every morning from 8:00 to 8:30? And for how many of those people is it a routine? If their routine overlaps mine, I’m liable to see the same people again and again, depending on the degree and consistency of overlap between our routines.

It wasn’t long before I had an answer to my question. On day two I saw a familiar face. Over two weeks, I have only been able to identify three definites:

Japanese-looking Girl. Japanese-looking Girl looks Japanese. That’s not to say she is; there are Chinese-looking Koreans, Thai-looking Japanese, etc. But she has a dye job and a perm, as well as a certain sense of style that strikes me as Japanese-looking. She was the one I recognized on day two, and I see her almost every single day because a long stretch of our routines, running in opposite directions along West Nanjing Road, overlap. I like Japanese-looking girl because she has a kind face, and she always wears a thoughtful expression.

F4 Reject. This guy bears a striking resemblance to a member of the Taiwanese boy band F4, which used to be all the rage in the PRC. He’s got the long hair, and seems to be going for the “casually stylish” look. He always wears jeans, frequently wears black shirts. Differences are his looks are not boy band caliber, he wears glasses, and he has the unattractive habit of walking around with his mouth agape. He seems to always be in a stupor, plodding determinedly ahead.

Aryan Duo. Only one of the two has blond hair, but I just liked that name. They appear to be a couple, they’re tall, they both wear black trenchcoats, and they walk fast. They look very unfriendly, as if Shanghai is holding them captive. They may be just as shackled to their routines, because I only see them if I can get out the door around 8:00am (which isn’t often). I don’t miss them.

Why mention these people at all? Well, what strikes me as interesting is that as quick as I was to identify them as fixtures in my routine, I imagine they should have begun to recognize me by now. At around 6’5″, I’m not a foreigner that is often overlooked in China. And yet day after day, their eyes show absolutely no recognition. So that’s my challenge. These people are going to recognize me.

I tried to smile at Japanese-looking Girl, but that’s kinda tricky, because I don’t want her to think I’m coming onto her. I’m sure she’ll crack eventually if I just make a small friendly smile as we pass (every single fricking day!). I wonder how she would react if I commented on a change in her hairstyle as I passed her.

There’s little hope for F4 Reject. The guy seems half-catatonic sometimes. (I bet he’d noticed me if I jacked him in the jaw!) His open mouth reminds me of myself as a kid, because I once had this bad habit myself. My grandma would say to me, “whatcha doin’ there, catchin’ flies?” I bet F4 Reject has caught a few.

I don’t plan on seeing the Aryan Duo again. Why leave the house in the morning before 8:05 if I don’t have to?

HSK Scorecard

OK, I realize this is really boring, but some people have been asking about it, so I guess I’ll write about it.

I did not get the HSK score I hoped for. I wanted an 8. I got a high 7. I pretty much expected a 7, because the amount of vocabulary needed to ace the HSK was just beyond my ability to build in just one semester. Well, if I wanted to do anything in my free time besides study for the HSK, that is. I regret nothing.

So the surprise came Saturday when one of my classmates came to Shanghai and brought my scoresheet and HSK certificate. The test is divided into 4 sections: Listening, Grammar, Reading, Synthesis. My scores in each category were right in the middle of the range — no “almost’s” or “not quites.” My scores, respectively, were 8, 8, 8, 6. I got a 6 in the Synthesis section! I’m not sure why, and I’m not allowed see which ones I got wrong or even the test questions.

“Synthesis” (综合) is the section where you have to write in some Chinese characters, but that part was surprisingly easy. It could also have been the “choose the word which best completes the sentence” portion. They ask some tricky ones in there. I’m not sure what happened. Maybe I was tired because it was the end of the test? Don’t know.

So my total points came out to 334. The cutoff for 8 is 337. Even if I had had 3 more points on the Synthesis section I wouldn’t have gotten an 8, though, because you can’t have the score of one category so far below the others. I would have needed a full 5 points to get the 7 in Synthesis and 8 overall.

So that’s the HSK. I’m not sure if I’ll ever take it again. Overall I’m pretty satisfied, but the nerdy student in me feels a lingering bloodlust for that damn test….

Staggering Extravagance

The Western media likes to write stories about how rich a very small portion of China’s population is becoming. Here’s further evidence of the trend in the form of an advertisement.

A Chinese friend recently drew my attention to this ad in Shangai Wednesday (上海星期三). The following is my (clumsy) translation of said ad:

The Ultimate Party

Portman Ritz-Carlton –“888 Rose Romantic Voyage” Whether it is a proclamation of love or a unique marriage proposal experience, the “888 Rose Romantic Voyage” ensemble will do its utmost to put romantic ambience into 888 roses forming a rose sea, as well as a hotel luxury limosine laden with champagne and a romantic melody, which will meet and carry the lovers to their destinations. The hall leading to the Greenberg Presidental Suite will be lined on both sides with rose bouquets. The presidential suite has received both past and present American presidents. Upon entering the presidential suite, a melodious 4 person string orchestra will accompany you. When it is time to retire for the evening, your bed will be adorned with rose petals in the shape of a heart. Various rose-scented gifts are included as well. A rose petal bath will be specially prepared for the lovers, as well as rose-flavored chocolate, rose petal tea, and the Summer Pavillion Restaurant’s gift of 8 courses of rose-inspired delicacies. “888 Rose Romantic Journey”: RMB 88,888 [US$11,111] / night

This ad made me really curious, so I called directory assistance (“114” in China) and got the Portman Ritz-Carlton’s phone number. I called the hotel and asked to speak to a manager. I told her I was writing an article on their “888 Rose Romantic Voyage” offering for a website, and she was happy to answer a few questions. The additional information I gained was:

  • The Portman Ritz-Carlton is only 8 years old, so “past and present American presidents” amounts to two.
  • The “888 Rose Romantic Voyage” began a few months ago and is available year-round, not just on Valentine’s Day, pending availability of the presidential suite.
  • So far, one couple has purchased the “888 Rose Romantic Voyage.”

[Extended entry includes the text of the original Chinese ad.] Read the rest of this entry »

Doom Cometh to Hangzhou

No, I’m not talking about Hangzhou’s recent hydrofluoric acid leak, I’m talking about the arrival of Jamie Doom (of Doom in China fame).

I finally got to meet the guy last night. He was passing through Shanghai on his way to Hangzhou, where he will soon be a teacher at ZUCC. First I’ll say that he was exactly as I expected his to be from his blog, and that’s a compliment. He was friendly, funny, up for a good time, and he looked like he does in his pictures.

I sort of did a repeat night out that I did with Amy, Carl, and Greg a few weeks ago: all you can eat and drink teppanyaki at Da Yu, followed by merriment at Excalibur Rocks. It did the trick.

I was a little disappointed by the initial lack of gusto on the parts of the eaters. When it’s all you can eat and you’re shelling out a pretty penny, I expect people to eat all they can eat. Those fools actually needed reminders! Same goes for the alcohol! It wasn’t long before Jamie was catching up with (and surpassing) me on the drinks, though, and Russell made a valiant effort too. By the time we got to Excalibur Rocks we were all pretty happy.

Highlight of the evening for me was watching Jamie do a solo dance on the floor with two hula hoops. I’m not sure if he even remembers it, but I was dying laughing at the time.

It’s always interesting to meet these bloggers. People choose what parts of themselves to expose in their blogs, but when you actually meet face to face, you get the rest. I think every blogger has tons of good stories he doesn’t want to write about on his public blog.

Anyway, good luck in Hangzhou, Jamie. We’ll meet again….

[Note: it seems that the previous night, some bloggers in Beijing had a little bash of their own.]

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