China has a chip on its shoulder.
An economist in China was castigated recently (and his company shunned) when he made an innocuous statement that apparently got lost in translation. He was discussing the epidemic that is affecting pigs in China, and he said it was not a problem unless you were a Chinese pig.
Now, in English, his meaning was quite clear. But apparently when translated into Chinese, his comment came out as "All Chinese people are ugly, stinking pigs!" or something to that effect.
Now just to be clear about this, for our Chinese readers (all three of them, with the China security service), what he was talking about was pigs (the porcine kind) who were living in China. He was not calling Chinese people pigs, implying it, or inferring it in any way. And anyone fluent in English would realize this. In fact, there is no way anyone who reads and understands English could infer an insult from his statement.
But therein lies the problem. Chinese people think they are fluent in English, and certainly many speak and read it far better than Westerners could ever understand Chinese. But being able to "get by" in a language is a far cry from being fluent. And this episode illustrates how little of the English language the Chinese people understand.
This was driven home to me recently when I left feedback on eBay for a Chinese merchant. They were selling a wall-pack transformer for $12 for the Bissell Air Ram. My neighbor lost hers, so I bought her a new one. The OEM price is like $27, so this seemed like a cheaper alternative.
I left feedback of all five stars, with the comment "Cheap power supply for Bissell!"
Ten minutes later, I get an angry e-mail from China.
"My power supply no cheap!" he says in pidgin English, "Is best quality top number one power supply! SAE approved!" - or something to that effect. At first I was baffled by his comment, and not just because his command of English was very limited. Then I realized he took my compliment as an insult. And the fault for this lies not with me, but with him.
You see, in English, "cheap" has a number of different meanings. It can mean "inexpensive" which was originally its definition. But over the years, it has taken on other meanings. "Cheap" also can infer lack of quality or shoddiness. And the Chinese are particularly sensitive to this, as like the Japanese before them, were accused of purveying "cheap Chinese junk!"
Note that "junk" has a number of other meanings as well - including the name of a Chinese sailing ship. Yes, English is complicated.
So, while I thought I was complimenting them on having a low price, they took it as an insult.
Why is this?
Well, I think in part that China is still sensitive about a lot of things. In the modern era, they saw themselves marginalized and colonized in one form or another by various Western powers. Chinese people were treated poorly in the Western world and often persecuted. One reason we saw so many Chinese restaurants and laundries in America was that Chinese people were excluded from jobs, and so had to create their own employment.
Then there was the 50-odd years of Communism and deprivation. It is only in the modern era that China has become an economic powerhouse, but then again, based on trade with the West, and often a result of Western investment and joint ventures. Some argue that the Chinese economic miracle is built on a house of cards - and off-the-books debt. And we know how that worked out for Enron.
Chinese national pride has taken a beating over the years, and Chinese nationalism is on the rise. And this does not bode well for foreign brands being sold in China. GM may be minting coin on the sales of Buicks there, but it could all fall apart in short order, particularly as international tensions rise.
So it is no surprise they are a little touchy about things these days. Now add in translation errors, and you have the makings of all sorts of hijnks.
The Chinese, it seems, have a chip on their shoulders, and lately have been looking for trouble by trying to divine the meanings of words, looking for insults. They just assume that everyone hates them, and the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you think people are saying things behind your back or using innuendo to insult you, odds are you can "find" evidence of this, if you look hard enough.
But it is all in your own mind!