Avoiding an evil Xmas on Taobao Street

By Stuart Beaton ( China Daily ) Updated: 2010-12-15 13:21:40

Avoiding an evil Xmas on Taobao Street

The way we use words, their pronunciation and tone, all play a very important part in how well we understand each other. Even the slightest slip can lead to unexpectedly funny results.

Recently, I was giving one of my classes an individual speaking exam, in which students had to have a conversation with me for about five minutes. Things were going smoothly, until one of my students said: "I can't sleep. I live in a documentary."

I blinked, and she continued, "And I share it with five other girls."

Avoiding an evil Xmas on Taobao Street

For a horrible moment, I thought I was being recorded in this documentary, and glanced about for a camera crew.

Then it dawned on me that she'd made an error in pronunciation.

She wasn't a reality TV star after all, but did live in a dormitory. I quickly explained to her the difference between the two words, jotted down her score on the page, and sent her on her way.

When I returned home, I told the story to my wife, Ellen. "So", she said, "she's not the only one who makes mistakes. Remember when I first took you to meet my parents?"

Remember? How could I forget.

Ellen's parents don't speak any English, and I don't speak any Chinese, so communication between us is generally limited to pointing and nodding, and not a lot else.

So when Ellen's mother pointed to Ellen and said, "Chen Xin", I thought it must mean something like "beautiful", and I filed the word away for future use.

About an hour later, we were watching a movie on TV, and a pretty Hollywood actress came on the screen. I seized the chance to show off the newest addition to my miniscule Chinese vocabulary, pointed at Ellen and said, "Chen Xin!"

When everyone stopped laughing and Ellen stopped hitting me, she pointed out that "Chen Xin" was her name.

Which explained why no one else in the room could work out who "Ellen" was.

Not long after that, Ellen asked me to cook something special for her, so she could watch me in action.

I said that would be great, "But I'll need to set up my mise en place first though".

"That's OK", she replied, "I'll help you find it. What does it look like?"

Thoroughly bewildered at this point, I knotted my apron and said: "What does what look like?"

"Your missing piece."

As I rolled my sleeves up, I explained to Ellen that a "mise en place" isn't something you've lost, but the way a cook sets up the kitchen and ingredients, before starting to prepare a dish.

My awful Chinese pronunciations have driven cab drivers to distraction. I once leapt into the back of a taxi, and said "taobao ji!" to the driver.

I don't know where I would have ended up, if Ellen hadn't pointed out that I should have said "Taobao Jie", instead of asking for a chicken.

Perhaps the most memorable mispronunciation for Ellen and I is one that revolves around the upcoming holiday season.

We'd spent the day traveling to Beijing, to get some documents processed at the Australian Embassy. On the train coming back, Ellen asked me: "What are we going to do for evil?"

"Sorry, Ellen, what evil do you want to do?"

"You know, Christmas evil!"

It transpired that Ellen had been talking with one of our neighbors about Christmas traditions, and how they'd always shared a meal with family and friends the night before Christmas. Now Ellen is keen to do something.

Although, hopefully, nothing too evil, on Christmas Eve.

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