Twice Lost in Translation

1. Why are Shenzhen pensioners arguing about a Canadian winter sports hero?

This is not 张艺谋For a short time everyday I tune into a radio station broadcast from across the border in Shenzhen, China. I understand a fraction of what is being said in high speed, vocabulary-rich, sometimes Cantonese-accented Mandarin. I listen in an attempt to improve my listening comprehension skills.

Last week, a call-in show featured a heated discussion where the name “Johnny Mo” was used with high-frequency.

Why do I recognize that name, I wondered. Who is “Johnny Mo” and why are people in Shenzhen arguing about him? 

I looked up “Johnny Mo” and three prominent results popped up. First, the famous Canadian Winter Olympics curler, second, a fictional character in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and third, an African American gospel singer. Chances seemed slimed that any of these three individuals were being discussed by Shenzhen residents during a radio program whose main topics are usually traffic congestion, utility hook-ups and urban residence permits.

I scratched my head and let the mystery drop.

Two days later I happened to re-watch the beginning of Raise the Red Lantern. Casually reading the credits I saw the director’s name: “Zhang Yimou” (张艺谋).

I had my answer! Shenzhen day-time radio listeners were talking about Zhang Yimou. (Note that “zh” is pronounced with a “j”-like sound and that “yi” is pronounced like a long “e.”)

Zhang Yimou is the famous Chinese film director who is currently wanted for violating China’s one-child policy by having seven children by four women. Thinking of the plot of Raise the Red Lantern, where four wives and concubines seek the favor of one man, perhaps this is a case of a director’s life copying his own art?

At the time of writing, Zhang Yimou’s whereabouts remain a mystery and he seems to be in hiding.

2. Didn’t Obama say no one would eat turkey this Thanksgiving?

The (single) pardoned turkey

Wrapping up my Chinese lesson, which I conduct via Skype from a woman based in Tianjian, my tutor mentioned Thanksgiving. I told her, using awkward Chinese, “Right now in my house I have a very big, very icy chicken. American export. We eat Thursday.”

After reminding me of the word for turkey (火鸡 “huoji,” literally “fire chicken”), she expressed surprise that I was planning to eat a turkey. She had just seen a picture of President Obama with a turkey and understood that he announced that Americans would not eat turkey this year.

My tutor had stumbled upon the yearly American charade of the president pardoning one lucky turkey. Perhaps because the Chinese language allows one to be rather vague about things like plurals, she understood that no turkeys would be eaten this year, rather than that only this particular turkey would not be eaten this year.

After I explained the situation, she thought it very odd to bother saving one turkey from the dinner table, while all the rest are still eaten. Good point.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Original photo sources: Anil Mungil via Wikimedia (for Johnny Mo photo) and Lawrence Jackson, Official Whitehouse Photographer, via Wikimedia (for Obama’s 2009 turkey pardon photo).

18 responses to “Twice Lost in Translation

  1. Really? Zhang Yimou had seven kids? That’s the first i heard of it.

    And, your luggage must be tremendous to include a large frozen turkey exported from America, among the diapers and other big bulk items. What kind of stuffing/sauce you thinking of using? Szechuan Surprise?

    • I think it perhaps makes sense in an American Turkey Growers Association marketing sense. But it doesn’t feel right to be so cynical on Thanksgiving eve, so I’ll go with the silly photo op reasoning. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. come to think of it, you do have an oven capable of 500F and able to fit a turkey, do you? I recall HK ovens are pretty limited after you shoved that turkey in there. (or is it a rotissere?)

  3. Your Johnny Mo story reminds me of a student I had while teaching in Luo Hu.

    He said to call him “Ibrahim Movie,” rather all as one word. Any name but a Chinese given name, it seems. Sure.

    This year, there was a thread about possibly unusual names on a travel forum, and I mentioned this. Some feller chimed in to ruin my fun- “oh, that’s probably Ibrahimović, a Swedish footballer.”

    The bigger news is, mainland students care about another sport besides the NBA?

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