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Lost and Found in Translation

Written by David Kung, Associate Professor of Mathematics

EDITOR’S NOTE: David Kung, associate professor of math, and his family spent his sabbatical this past year at Fudan University in Shanghai; Fudan has had a reciprocal relationship with St. Mary's College for more than 25 years. Kung taught classes there and worked on a book, tentatively titled What Could They Possibly Be Thinking? Understanding Your College Math Students. Although his son, who attended a Chinese public school, can now speak Mandarin without an accent, Kung’s familiarity with the language led to more than a few mishaps.

 

We left our Maryland home last August and headed to Shanghai, eager to explore the culture that produced half of my ancestors.  However, it quickly became apparent that two years of Chinese classes hadn’t quite prepared me for the position of Official Family Translator. During one delicious lunch early on, after letting yet another dumpling slip through my fumbling chopsticks, I cheerily announced to the waitress, “These dumplings are really hard to eat!”  Her frown was unmistakable.  “Hard to eat,” actually meant "hard to eat because they're disgusting!" Both the scrumptious dumplings and the embarrassment were just a taste of things to come.

Months went by and we settled into our new surroundings.  Observing how the Chinese interacted with each other, I reexamined scenes from my childhood. Maybe Uncle Bob didn’t have anger management problems - Chinese just get really animated when they argue!  Look, Dad isn’t the only weirdo who constantly picks at his whiskers!  People here make an art out of refusing to accept compliments, just like Grandma and Grandpa!

kungAlthough the cultural understanding grew, the language problems unfortunately continued. A mono-syllabic, tonal language, Mandarin instantly transforms the slightest slip of the tongue into a misunderstanding. “We’d like to order the Butt Soup.” “Butt Soup?  I’m afraid we don’t have that.”  “Yes, you do!  We had some the last time we came here.  It was delicious!” The gathering crowd of waiters convened a quick Party meeting. “I think he wants the Pork Rib Soup.” Relieved that they hadn’t fulfilled the odd request, my family sat down to slurp soup, laughing both with me and at me.

On another occasion, returning from a morning run in the heat and humidity that only Shanghai perfects, I came across the dawn ritual of old men gossiping under the watchful gaze of their pet birds. Watching me drip all over the sidewalk, the friendliest one nodded my way. “What’s with you? Did you just get out of the shower?” Verging on some confidence in such banter, I replied “Other people got up much earlier than me!” a perfectly humble reply – to the question mistakenly heard.  He looked at me, then to his friends. A sympathetic guy piped up from the back, “The old foreigner thought you asked if he got up early!” We shared a laugh when they told me my simple but amusing mistake and I saw how humor magically deflated prejudice and crossed cultural boundaries.

If only I had learned the language from birth!

Having parents from two very different cultures presented my brothers and me with challenges that our 98% white, central Wisconsin classmates never knew and wouldn’t understand. I never wanted my Chinese father to pick me up from school, preferring that my friends saw my Iowa-born Danish mother at the curb.  My classmates called me “Chink,” to my teachers’ horror (but, interestingly, not my own).   The frustrating truth, I decided back in Shanghai as I continued to struggle, was that I would have resented any attempt to force such a foreign language down my throat.

Talking with Shanghai taxi drivers, I found myself answering the same question I’d been asked hundreds of times in the States: “Where are you from?”  In both languages, the questioner’s curious inquiry belied an unspoken assumption that I wasn’t a native.  “I’m half-Chinese,” I responded in Mandarin, noticing that when my fellow Americans asked me this back home, the same answer came out with an added touch of bitterness.

The seasons changed and the air got worse. We marveled that this Communist country’s Christmas decorations rivaled Fifth Avenue’s. Yet still the language blunders kept spilling from my lips like the slippery peanuts that take the edge off an otherwise fiery dish of gong pao chicken.

On a trip to Beijing, I asked for directions. “Excuse me. Do you know where the Cow’s Nest is?” “Cow’s Nest?  No, I don’t know.” I thought to myself, “This guy must be from out of town. I’m talking about the brand new Olympic Stadium!” His puzzled face faded away, "THIS guy is from out of town. Maybe he means the Bird’s Nest Stadium!"

Of course, here in China I didn’t have a lock on misunderstandings.  A security sign on the Shanghai metro warned in English, “If you are stolen, call police immediately!”  A bus in Xi’an had the company name printed in both languages. Having written the Chinese characters right-to-left, they had done the same with the English: “PUORG NOITAROPROC MSIRUOT IXNAAHS.”

The half-year mark came and went. Slowly, things started to fall into place.  My parents came to visit, and I got to see how my mother dealt with being in the minority.  We also watched from afar as a bi-racial candidate fought for the Democratic nomination in the U.S., dealing with his identity issues in a very public forum.  My conversations strayed into more complicated topics: the environment, the Olympic flame, political unrest in Tibet.  My office swayed back and forth in an earthquake whose destruction would prompt the American media to show the human side of the Chinese people. My embarrassing mistakes slowly faded into the past and from memory. A month short of our departure, a 70-year-old retired teacher asked if I felt like China was my country.  “I didn’t when we arrived last August, but now that I can speak the language better, I do.” 

I had come home – just in time to fly back to the U.S.