Robert Siegel

Language and Laundry

Notes from a luxury, i.e. Western, hotel in Chengdu:

laundry Chengdu

Shirts: vetted, purged and then cleaned. Photo by Art Silverman, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Photo by Art Silverman, NPR

No one tries harder than the army of enthusiastic young people who staff our hotel. At the front desk, two young women checked me in the other night. They go by the English names they have chosen, a practice that can be phonetic, literal, or wildly imaginative. Their names are Amy and Jones. Amy sees my reservation from National Public Radio and, upon learning that I speak on the radio, observes that my English is VERY "standard". I later learn that this is a great compliment in translation.

Three days later, my colleague and I both send in laundry and both receive phone calls about the quality of our clothing.

"Just to check, Mister Siegel, on a black tee shirt, there are two small holes...On a red shirt, the color is faded on the back."

And so on.

They are doing due diligence on the laundry, establishing by mutual consent that these blemishes on my wardrobe are pre-existing conditions, prior to laundering, and that I still intend to have the items laundered despite their gross imperfections. I do. But I am now embarrassed about the condition of my wardrobe and wonder what my ancestors would make of the holes in my tee shirt.



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Buying shirts in China is a sobering experience. When I walk into a clothing store in Oregon, I purchase a large shirt. But now I am sitting at my desk wearing a shirt I brought back from China, and it is an XXL.

Ah, Robert, now you are faced with the decision: is it time to get a shirt to bring home from China?

And someone really should tell Amy that your speech DEFINES standard American English.

Sent by Jon D. Moulton | 12:13 PM | 5-9-2008

Haha, that is pretty funny.

You will get used to it. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. The workers in the laundry just want to make sure the imperfections of your clothes are pre-existing, so that you won't blame them and ask for compensation after that.

Sent by Song Qiuying | 12:16 PM | 5-9-2008

I'd feel really honored if someone told me my Chinese is very STANDARD.

I'd been outside of Sichuan Province for only a month before I came to the US. My Sichuan accent is so strong as that my adviser once labeled my English as "Chuanglish".

Sent by C. Liang | 7:45 PM | 5-9-2008

I like American accent, maybe the British accent being a little bit strained and affected. Furthermore, a standard oral English makes everyone here in China envy.

Sent by Wecan Wong | 9:47 PM | 5-9-2008

"Biao Zhun" in Chinese may mean "standard" or "authentic." The proper translation of her comment on your English should be "your English is very authentic" not "very standard." That's why it's supposed to be a compliment.

Even in the US, laundry disputes can lead to multimillion dollar lawsuits. Remember this story:

"A $10 dry cleaning bill for a pair of trousers has ballooned into a $67 million civil lawsuit. Plaintiff Roy Pearson, a judge in Washington, D.C., says in court papers that he's been through the ringer over a lost pair of prized pants he wanted to wear on his first day on the bench. .........."

So you shouldn't be surprised that she informed you of pre-existing conditions in your laundry drop-off. This is similar to buying health insurance in the US in that the insurance company wants to document any "pre-existing conditions" you may have.

Sent by Jim Mu | 1:33 AM | 5-10-2008

Mr Moulton:

At least the nice lady at the bespoke tailor didn't exclaim in astonishment when she measured your waist for your new slacks!

Sent by Tom Hill, Chengdu | 4:28 AM | 5-10-2008

"Authentic" is the right translation here, and it is the highest compliment.

Sent by Philip | 9:21 PM | 5-10-2008

Is China the only place to consider speaking authentic language a high honor, I cannot help but wonder? I asked my English friend if there is a Standard English. He had to think long and hard and told me it must be the Queen's English. I asked my American friend the same question and he cannot even answer my question. I speak authentic Mandarin, but always long to have an accent, which I think will make me belong.

Mr. Hill, I long consider the blunt manner in the clothing business a cultural norm. I cannot tell you how many times I was complimented by shop clerks how skinny I am, and get this, how flat I am! Truth does hurt.

Sent by Tong | 1:14 PM | 5-12-2008


Sent by Ning | 7:49 PM | 5-12-2008

Your coverage from China, both before and during the earthquake and aftermath is remarkable for its immediacy. It makes me proud to be a member who supports your effort. Keep up the great work!

Sent by larthur | 10:42 AM | 5-13-2008

Melissa, You are doing an excellent job reporting the situation in China. Have you had contact with anyone in Wolong about the condition of the Panda reserve and the Pandas located there?

Sent by Jerry Braden | 2:34 PM | 5-13-2008

BBC and other news orgs are reporting that the Wolong pandas are safe.

Sent by andy carvin, npr | 2:42 PM | 5-13-2008

I want to second all of the comments about the exceptional reportage from China by Ms Block and Mr. Siegel. May God keep the families of the victims of that tragedy and those of Burma. We are in for some tough times. Perhaps the silver lining will be our finally coming together as a body of humanity to help each other.

Sent by Larry Martin Pierce | 6:24 PM | 5-13-2008

Another possible translation: "Your English is very CORRECT" or "very PROPER." The important thing is that the opposite is slightly offensive -- i.e. "incorrect" or "improper" is slightly more offensive than "nonstandard" or "inauthentic."

The Beijing accent of Mandarin Chinese holds the same role as Received Pronunciation did in the British Empire of old. Just as in Pygmalion or My Fair Lady -- the proper accent connotes class, wealth, education, etc. The improper accent marks you out as lower-class, poor, less well educated.

These days, the BBC announcers carry all sorts of different accents, and the Queen is starting to pick up Americanisms in her speech (so much for the Queen's English). So you have to know a bit of the background to understand the compliment: "Amy's English is so standard, that she got picked out of three hundred million people to be the announcer on NATIONAL Public Radio."

Sent by Translation Enthusiast | 6:05 PM | 5-15-2008


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