Ni shuo Hanyu ma?

“English is what saved us,” an Irish workmate told me recently of his economically troubled homeland. “Our young people can go abroad and work because of English, if it wasn’t for that there would be riots on the streets of Dublin.”

Speaking English is of massive benefit when looking for a job, travelling and communicating all over the world. Despite the troubled global economy there is a huge demand for English teachers from Seville to X’ian and businesses from Stockholm to Shanghai communicate in the global language. My job in China is largely thanks to my mother tongue.

But what if you only speak English?

In a speech to the Queensland Tourism Industry Council this week, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged Australians to learn Mandarin. “It seems the times are upon us,” he warned.

Rudd suggested the Australian Broadcasting Corporation needed to turn their focus to Asia (couldn’t agree more – Australian media is hopelessly Euro focused), and tourism operators need to learn Mandarin and start writing signs in Chinese. It’s pretty minor stuff, but it’s a start.

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Meanwhile, in Bavaria…

And thus our intrepid traveller left China and went to Munich (for a week) and lo, there she discovered pretzels and beer and bratwurst and lederhosen and dirndls and cobblestones and a number of people who looked exactly like the bad guys in Bond film:

Oktoberfest patrons/henchmen of evil empire operating out of secret castle. You decide.

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The Numbers Game

I was editing a news story written by a Chinese writer.

She referred to 18 families twice in her story, but in different contexts. The second time she had written “more than 18”. It was a little confusing, so I called her.

“It’s different families I am referring to,” she said. “The second referrence is actually 20 families, but 18 is a lucky number in China so I just wrote ‘more than 18,’ instead.”

In China numerology isn’t something just practised by middle aged hippies wearing purple crushed velvet and too much petuli oil, it permeates every part of daily life and is taken into consideration in everything from selecting a mobile phone number to buying a house.

When buying a sim card I had the option of selecting a number from several lists displayed on the counter of the shop (which, by the way was a mobile phone dealer/traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy/western medicine pharmacy/florist/printing kiosk… hey, space is at a premium here).

Phone numbers considered lucky or auspicious, basically any with lots of eights, were more expensive, and phone numbers containing unlucky numbers – like four, were cheaper. Numbers which had already been taken were crossed off in thick black pen.

In multi-story buildings floors 4, 14 and 44 are often left out. Thirteen is often absent too, it doesn’t have any particular meaning in Chinese, but they must figure if so many Laowais consider it unlucky why take the chance?

The reason four is considered so unlucky is because the word four, si, also means death in Chinese.

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Eileen Chang

I found this book of sketches by Eileen Chang in a curio shop in a cute little Hutong near the Lama temple.

Chang is a well-known Chinese writer for did her best known work in the ’40s/’50s. She’s a fascinating woman. You can read a little about her here:

Here are some of my favourites:


Politics and the corner store

Yesterday was the 81st anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China and the corner store was shut.

It is owned buy a Japanese company.

Japanese owned shops and restaurants across China closed their doors yesterday as things got very tense between the two countries. A few days ago the Japanese government paid a Japanese family a lot of money for some unremarkable islands in the East China Sea. The Japanese call them Senkaku, China calls them Diaoyu. China claims the islands are theirs, Japan says this family had the deeds to them and now they have bought them.

There is no resort on the island, no massage parlour, hell, there’s not even a tiki bar, but there are large oil reserves underneath them, which one can only assume is some sort of new spa treatment.

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I am not a spy

On my first day at work in China my new boss told me it was very important they didn’t employ any spies.

“Don’t worry, I’m not a spy,” I said, laughing.

“I know,” he said, not smiling. “We googled you.”

This concerned me for a few reasons. Firstly, if I was a spy I’d hardly list ‘espionage’ as a skill on my LinkedIn profile, so googling seemed a fairly slack “hope she’s not a spy,” check. Secondly, I share a name with a former character on Australian soap opera Home and Away, so I hope they weren’t expecting a petite brunette teenager with a troubled past and a penchant for sleeping around to turn up.

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