Friday, 7 February 2014
When I was working with Conoco Taiwan 1975-76, we’d have visiting geologists and geophysicists from other offices. The usual practice in those days, in Taiwan and Singapore, was to ring up the airline company and ask if (a) the flight in question was on time; (b) the passenger had actually got on. This was to save us a wasted trip to the airport in case the flight was delayed or the passenger had missed it.
For one such phone call, I decided to use Mandarin out of courtesy to the host country, since Mandarin was their working language, even though the default language in Singapore tended to be English for official phone calls.
This was what took place between me and the staff member at Northwest Orient, with the conversation conducted in Mandarin:
NWO: (In Mandarin) Northwest Orient.
Me: (In Mandarin) Hello. I’d like to know if Flight 123 from San Francisco, due to land at 10.30am today, will be arriving on time.
NWO: (Brusquely, in Mandarin) Wait a minute. (Receiver clattered loudly onto the table as she went to check.) Yes, it is. (CLICK -- she hung up before I could ask my next question.)
I had to re-dial the number.
Me: (In Mandarin) I’m ringing up about your Flight 123 from San Francisco which is landing at 10.30am today. Can you please check your passenger list to see if Mr John Smith is on that flight.
NWO: (Brusquely, in Mandarin) Wait a minute. (Receiver clattered loudly onto the table as she went to check.) Yes, he is. (CLICK -- she hung up.)
A few weeks later, another visitor was coming over from our head office. This time, I decided to speak in English.
Me: (In English) Hello. I’d like to know if Flight 456 from San Francisco, due to land at 2.30pm today, will be arriving on time.
NWO: (Politely in English) Just a moment, please, Ma’am. (The receiver was placed gently down onto the table as she went to check. Then, very politely) Sorry to keep you waiting, Ma’am. Yes, Flight 456 from San Francisco is landing on time at 2.30pm. (Here, I was expecting her to hang up.) Is there anything else, Ma’am?
Me: (I was so surprised I nearly dropped my telephone. In English, and in shock) Oh yes, yes. Can you check the passenger list and see if Mr Robert Jones is on that flight.
NWO: (In English, politely) Just a moment, please, Ma’am. (The receiver was placed gently down onto the table as she went to check. I then heard her say to her colleague in Mandarin) 死*美国人，问东问西的！ / “dead American, ask east ask west case-of” / Goddamned American, all these questions
(Politely in English) Sorry to keep you waiting, Ma’am. Yes, Mr Robert Jones is on the flight. Is there anything else, Ma’am?
So, when I used Mandarin for my first call, she thought I was one of them, and treated me with brusqueness and rudeness. When I used English for my second call, she thought I was American, and treated me with courtesy, even if only superficial. Whilst there are undoubtedly nice people out there as well, this is unfortunately something I’ve encountered regularly throughout all the Chinese-speaking countries and even as recently as 2011.
(*死 sǐ / “to die” is used in Chinese as a noun-prefix for expressing extreme odium towards something/someone, when berating or cursing someone.)
My secretarial training had taught me to pick up the telephone within a couple of rings, and to screen calls.
One day, a woman rang up for my boss. I went through the usual routine:
Me: (In English) Hello, Dr Page’s office, can I help you?
Woman: (In a haughty voice, in English) Is he there?
Me: (In English) May I know who’s calling, please?
Woman: (In English) Rose Chang.
I’d never heard of a Rose Chang among my boss’s professional or personal contacts.
Me: May I know from which company, please?
Woman: (A slight pause — she seemed taken aback that she had to provide all these details.) XYZ Company.
I’d never heard of an XYZ Company either among my boss’s professional or personal contacts. It was a Chinese name.
Me: (In English) Sorry, can you repeat that, please?
Woman: (In English) XYZ Company.
Me: (In English) Sorry, how do you spell that, please?
Woman: (Brusquely, in Mandarin) 把我接过去，好不好！(Put me through, will you!)
I was only 21 and had never been trained to be assertive, so I just put her through, then sat there at my desk, shaking with indignation at her atrocious treatment of me.
After the call, my boss came round and said, “Do you know who that was? The president’s daughter-in-law!” I said, “I don’t care if she’s the president herself. She shouldn’t have been so rude.” My boss said, “Yes, she did wonder about you and asked me where you’re from. When I told her you’re from Singapore, she said, ‘Oh, I see. No wonder her English is so good.’” I said, “Is she saying she would’ve been more polite to me if she’d known I am not from Taiwan? That’s an equally appalling attitude!”
Some Chinese believe in 胎教 tāijiào / “womb education” = antenatal training. This is a process of starting to mould the baby even before it is born — in looks, in temperament, in intellect. The pregnant woman would listen to soothing music and look at beautiful pictures, including photos of beautiful people in the hope that the baby will develop good looks as a result. (The other side of this 胎教 is to avoid going to places like the zoo, so that the baby won’t end up looking like a monkey. Blog to come on this.)
I was often invited to social events organised by the Western community in Taipei, mostly but not exclusively within the oil community. A German couple in this Western community had a son, Marko, who was five years old: blond, blue-eyed, really angelic, especially to the Chinese eye.
One day, I went in to the office with photos of my day out at the beach with a Dutch/German group the previous weekend. The girls in the office, all unattached at the time without even a boyfriend, never mind a husband, took a great fancy to Marko, who was featured in a couple of close-up shots. They asked for a copy of Marko’s photo. “What for?” I asked, “You don’t even know the boy.” They said, “For when we get pregnant, so that we can look at his photo and give birth to a beautiful baby.” What, a blond blue-eyed Chinese baby??
A white Danish friend and her Indian partner are both fluent speakers of Chinese. The Indian partner is a naturalised Dane.
Back in the late 70s or early 80s, this Indian man went travelling around China. In those days, foreigners were restricted to certain areas only (e.g., the big cities), outside of which they’d need to have special travel permits for, to be applied for beforehand.
He arrived in a smaller town one day and was walking along the road when a Chinese chap in the street asked him, in Chinese, 你是丹麦来的吗？nǐ shì Dānmài lái de ma? / Are you from Denmark?
Now, this Indian man is very dark-skinned, so how on earth did the man conclude, spot-on, that he was from Denmark? And Denmark of all places, too, rather than, say, a more likely country like Brazil, where they have dark-skinned citizens. Also, how did the man know this Indian man could speak Chinese? I shall leave the reader to draw his/her own conclusions on both counts.
(China, late-1970s / early-1980s)
I had taken my three sisters (and a brother-in-law) on a ten-day pan-island tour of Taiwan in 1976 when I was working there. They’d found it great fun, particularly as we went everywhere by public transport, with rucksacks on our backs, something most Singaporeans didn’t do in those days — they’d drive. So, when I came over to London, I suggested to two of them that we go travelling around Europe for three months in the summer of 1980.
They eventually got organised, and arrived. As the exchange rate was S$6 : £1, everything was very expensive to them, so they came with a whole suitcase stuffed with packs of instant noodles and an immersion heater rod. This would also make life more bearable, not having to eat Western food all the time.
We went first to Scotland in a hired car, for five days, with me doing all the driving (and map-reading) and arranging all the accommodation. By Day Three, I decided I couldn’t take any more of travelling with them — something I’d learned in Taiwan back in 1976, swearing never to go travelling with them ever again, but had forgotten in the short space of four years. So, I backed out of the tour around Europe before relations got to a permanently irreparable level — after all, there were two of them, so they had each other to rely on. They’d already bought their Eurail passes, which allowed them unlimited travel around Europe, so they had to go.
One of the stories they came back to London with was about their self-catering experience in Greece.
After a day out doing the sights, they decided to cook some instant noodles for dinner at their budget hotel: just heat up some water with the immersion rod, and add the noodles. Cheap and quick.
When they plunged the immersion rod into the water, there was a “Bang!”, and the whole place went dark. Then they heard voices and footsteps out in the corridor and on the staircases as people wondered what had happened. The proprietor went round knocking on all the doors, asking people if they’d been using an electrical appliance that might’ve blown their fuses. When the proprietor got to them, my sisters said, “No,” without batting an eyelid.
After a little while, the lights came back on.
Right, try again. They were getting really hungry by this time. In went the immersion rod, and another BANG. The lights went out again. More voices and footsteps outside. The proprietor came again. No, my sisters said, trying to keep a straight face.
When the lights came back on a second time, however, they didn’t dare risk short-circuiting the whole hotel a third time, so they went to bed on an empty stomach.
An American chap, Michael — who’d done his MA in S.E.Asian History at SOAS during my BA days there — continued to keep in touch after he went back. One day, he said he was going to write a guide book on Connecticut. What did that entail, I asked. Driving around all the places in Connecticut, writing up notes on features in those places, then going home to do write-ups on them, he said. As one needs a car to travel around in America, I leapt at the opportunity to tag along as a passenger, offering to cook for him, and type up and edit his writings.
One day, since Michael was going into town, I decided to get some more U.S. dollars. Which bank? “Might as well go to mine,” said Michael. He stood in one corner of the enormous marbled hall area, gesturing me towards the counter.
The bank clerk took my Thomas Cooke sterling travellers’ cheques, then asked for my passport. When she saw that it was a Singapore passport, she told me they didn’t accept Thomas Cooke travellers’ cheques. If they didn’t accept them, I thought, there was nothing else to do but go elsewhere.
Michael could see from his corner that something was not right, so as I turned away from the counter, he came up and asked, “What’s happened?! Why haven’t you changed your travellers’ cheques??” I said, “They say they don’t accept Thomas Cooke cheques.” Michael said, “Nonsense.”
He went up to the clerk, and asked her, “What’s wrong with her Thomas Cooke travellers’ cheques? I will have you know that Thomas Cooke is the second largest in the world, with x branches in y countries.” The clerk stuck to her guns, “I’m sorry, Sir, we don’t accept Thomas Cooke cheques.” Michael said, “Where’s your manager? I want to see your manager and close my two accounts.”
A little while later, the manager came out. Michael went with him into the office behind the counter, then emerged a couple of minutes later, issuing this instruction to me: “Go and change your cheques.”
Back in the car, Michael said, “This is America, you know, kiddo. You must not act meek and mild.” I said, “I’m not ACTING meek and mild. I’ve just not been brought up to be so assertive.”
(Connecticut, USA, 1983)