Although I lived in Hong Kong for a year when I was 18 years old, it was still hard to prepare myself for what to expect when we arrived in China for the first time. One thing that surprised us was how much English was everywhere–from signs on stores, to labels on products we bought in the stores, to clothing–there was English everywhere.
Or something like English.
The most mystifying thing about this “English” is why it’s there at all. There aren’t an overwhelming number of expats in China. Recent stats put the number at somewhere just south of 700,000. In a country of between 1.3 and 1.4 billion people, that’s a drop in the bucket! And while we live in an excellent city with tons of amenities, it isn’t anything like Beijing or Shanghai where foreigners are everywhere. Most cities are like our city. Beijing and Shanghai, though admittedly big, are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to foreign presence.
And it isn’t as though, by and large, the Chinese population is conversant in English. Certainly, the standard of English is gradually rising, but let’s just put it this way: don’t get lost in China and depend on your English to help you find your way home again.
Nevertheless, it’s extremely common to see English words emblazoned all over the place. A friend explained it to me this way: English is associated with things classy, things elite or things special. Perhaps much like North Americans would treat something with French written on it.
That being the case, it’s further mystifying why someone wouldn’t take the time to get it right. We’ll often see shirts with a bunch of English words on them, few having any relationship whatever to the ones adjacent to them. Here’s one that almost got it right–I think–although I’m not at all sure what the intent might have been:
And here’s another–a sign advertising a new apartment complex being built in the heart of the city. Apparently, there is “inner peace in the flourishing” (!?!)
When I ask my friends who do speak English well about this phenomenon, they don’t seem to see my point. Even our Chinese teacher, whose English is very good, will wear a T-shirt with nonsense written on it. I suppose it’s no different from the phenomenon of “Westerners” sporting Chinese characters as tattoos:
Yes, something like that. Only less permanent. :)