Friday, March 18, 2005

Plain English is an Oxymoron

Today I tried to teach one of our handlers about playful sarcasm and teasing. He tried to put a baseball cap on my daughter's head to be funny and she fell back, hit her head on the floor and started to cry. She was sitting and it was carpeted, so there was no harm done, but I decided to tease him with, "Man! I didn't know that giving brain damage was one of the services you provide!" I was smiling when I said it, and a couple of other families laughed, but he looked so upset, and started apologizing profusely.

Determined to not only salvage this poor guy's day but to also turn around my ongoing Creating Inadvertent Ill Will Tour of China, I told him that today's program was going to be about Western Teasing, in which people say obviously ridiculous things in order to playfully josh with people they like. I explained to him the first lesson I learned when my family moved to the states, and that is that Americans generally only playfully tease people they like. So when someone is playing with you, it doesn't necessarily mean--as it usually does in Britain and obviously China--that they are trying to embarrass or harm you; in fact it means just the opposite. We then went through a role play of different things I might say that would sound very grave but if delivered with a smile and if seemingly out of proportion to the situation, could therefore generally safely be construed as teasing.

It was so funny to try to explain a particular type of humor to someone in a literal, instructive way. There is almost no way to translate it. At one point he said, "Everyone has to be here at 10:30--and don't be late!" And then I followed up with a throwaway, "Be there or be square, kids!" We discussed BTOBS for about an hour simply because each element of my explanation required explanation in and of itself! I explained what a "square" is, how it is a retro term (what is retro?), how you can say it and be funny but you have to say it like you know it is retro and not like you actually say that on a daily basis; it has to be delivered tongue-in-cheek (what is tongue in cheek?) went on and on like that, each idiomatic expression leading seamlessly to the next, to the point where I wondered if I use too many idiomatic expressions...

It was sweet because he really wants to learn, and funny because you realize that, for all of the Chinese language's seeming inscrutability due to the written characters, it is easier to learn than English. We discussed how a knife can be dull but so can a person. How "laughter" can be laffter, but "daughter" is not daffter. Just the most seemingly mundane things that you don't think about as a native English speaker but that people learning it must tackle.

So in the end, I was glad that he didn't throw himself off a bridge for the "brain damage" remark, that he got some sense of sarcasm as a valid humor vehicle if used judiciously, the value of some retro terms, and most of all, that he smiled big and wide when I called him The Mack Daddy of Greater Guangzhou when I saw him ride in on his motorcycle. This slightly dorky, very shy 23-year old guy smiled, I think, because the only non-inappropriate translation for "mack daddy" I could think of in the moment was "a successful flirt."

Yes, folks. On my second to last day in China, the Haggis finally struck a blow for positive US-Sino relations. I feel all warm and happy--just like Dick Nixon circa 1972.

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