It’s the only language they understand

In the early 1990s, arriving with my long-suffering friend and colleague Xue Yibing in a typically bare and grimy office of the Bureau of Culture in a county south of Beijing, we settle down to courtesies with the Bureau chief, to clear our way to go down to the villages. I launch into my routine again—delighted to be in this fine county, heard so much about your wonderful music, blah-blah, most grateful for your support, international cultural exchange blah-blah.

The Bureau chief is looking even more nonplussed by all these pathetic clichés than one would expect, and eventually, as I flounder around searching for yet more sonorous bullshit with which to impress him, Xue Yibing interjects, “Do you understand what he’s saying, Bureau chief?” He replies earnestly, “Well, if Mr Jones could speak Chinese, I might understand a bit!” OK, my accent may not be perfect, but really! Xue diplomatically explains, “Mr Jones doesn’t speak Chinese so well…” which prompts me to joke with him, “My Chinese is a lot better than your fucking English, mate—wodya mean, motherfucker?” Needless to say, these choice expressions come out in perfect Chinese readily understood by all. The assembled cronies are bemused. This story is now part of our Fieldworkers’ joke book (cf. Writing English: the etic view), and has even been immortalized, if somewhat modified, in an article I published in a Chinese conference volume.

My confidence was restored soon after, when we visited an old people’s home where we were told a fine former Daoist priest was living. We find him, and are soon chatting in the sunny courtyard with a crowd of lovely old geezers assembled. They haven’t had such fun since the Red Star Chairman Mao Thought Propaganda Troupe arrived to perform classic hits like We are little screws in the revolutionary machine and Thrust into the Enemy Rear. As I explain to the old Daoist, “Old Wang in your home village told us we might find you here, he said you used to do some great rituals…”, one old guy bursts out, “Hey, this is amazing—their language is the same as ours!” His ears were more finely tuned than those of the Bureau chief.

6 thoughts on “It’s the only language they understand

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