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The China Connection

Trip to China clarifies the value of mastering a language
First published April 24, 2012

Choose your closings with an eye – and an ear – to relationship
First published June 19, 2012

First published April 24, 2012

 Trip to China clarifies the value of mastering a language

By Stephen Wilbers

On my flight home from China, I was reading a series of articles about energy in the inflight magazine Wings of China when I came across this sentence:

"Much ink has been spilled over the upsides of nuclear power. Though it once put ants in the pants, there should be no ignoring the elephant in the room: it’s been a bonanza for economy, and especially in France, it gives France 410,000 jobs, 2% of the total."

Apparently eager to show off a command of idiomatic English, the author had loaded the text with an amusing but nonsensical jumble of cliches: ink spilled, ants in the pants, elephant in the room.

Not that I have a right to poke fun, given my ludicrously inadequate command of Mandarin Chinese – a deficiency that did not, however, prevent me from spouting as much of my eight-phrase vocabulary as I could muster to every Chinese man, woman, and child I encountered. Nevertheless, these sentences appeared in an international publication, and presumably they had been reviewed by an English-speaking editor. The international traveler (me, in this case) had a right to expect better.

Stripped of their figures of speech, the sentences might look something like this: "Although nuclear power once caused anxiety, its benefits have often been recognized. One should not disregard the obvious: nuclear power has been a bonanza for the economy, especially in France, where it has created 410,000 jobs, 2% of the workforce."

It wasn’t surprising that these sentences jumped out at me. For two weeks I had been captivated by extraordinary sights – the Great Wall near Beijing, the terra cotta warriors of Xi’an, the other-worldly karst pinnacles of Guilin, and the dazzling 21st-century skyline of Shanghai – but I also had been fascinated by the people of this dynamic, rapidly changing society, by their warmth and friendliness toward Americans, and by the way they used language, not so much their own language (though I loved hearing its rapid staccato cadence), but by the way they used ours. The Chinese, I discovered, are hungry for English.

My first indication was when they sidled up to our group to listen to our guides expound in English on the wonders we were witnessing. When we aimed our cameras at them, they aimed theirs at us, then posed for pictures beside us, sometimes nudging their children forward and urging them to practice speaking English with us. Until then I hadn’t realized I carried something so precious inside my head.

Our guides were remarkable. One spoke flawless English despite his never having visited an English-speaking country. The others made occasional errors, sometimes departing from standard idioms in delightful ways, but they nearly always succeeded in conveying their meaning. Although I have some knowledge of six languages (Latin, French, Spanish, British English, American English, and Minnesotan) and I now know eight phrases in a seventh, I was humbled by their achievement, and I was reminded of the importance of attaining competence not only in one’s native tongue, but also in other languages.



"China is a lovely place to be a child, cooed over, fondled, and tended by everyone -- relatives or otherwise -- with great warmth and feeling."

"I found myself charmed and moved by the decency, generosity, dignity, and humor of the everyday Chinese I met and whose homes I visited."

– Bill Holm, Coming Home Crazy: An Alphabet of China Essays


First published June 19, 2012

Choose your closings with an eye – and an ear – to relationship

By Stephen Wilbers

Wei Li writes: "There’s a question confuses me for quite a long time. When I write to my group people, by the end of the letter, I need to close the letter by regards, best regards, kind regards, warm regards, best wishes, your sincere, your truely.  I’ll appreciated if you can tell me the differences between all these phases."

Wei Li, whose spoken English is excellent, is a Chinese tour guide. She goes by "Julie" for the sake of the non-Chinese-speaking people in her groups, people like me. My wife and I had the pleasure of being in Wei Li’s warm, capable care for two weeks while we toured China.

As I discovered when studying French during my junior year in Aix-en-Provence, one of the many advantages of translingual communication is that it offers insights into your own language as well as into the language of the people you are encountering. Wei Li’s question made me think about the subtle differences in the various ways we close our correspondence.

Here’s what I told her about our closings, from formal to personal:

Sincerely: standard close on paper; also fine for email in business correspondence (but too formal for your messages to your tour group members)

Yours sincerely: slightly more personal but still formal

Yours truly: somewhat more informal, but as a matter of conventional use, more formal than the words suggest

Best regards, kind regards, warm regards, best wishes: friendly, but still somewhat formal

Regards: standard close for email, appropriate for friends (and fine for messages to your tour group members)

Yours: informal, friendly

Take care: appropriate for close friends and family (and fine for tour group members, but after, not during, your tours, when you are emphasizing continuing relationship rather than conveying necessary information)

Ciao, cheers: friendly, playful, hip

Love: appropriate for very close friends and family members

Shan Hu, one of our four local guides, writes: "here’s my question. is there any word or phrase in English (like what’s wrong & what’s wrong with you) which easily by misunderstanding leads to offensive meaning?"

Shan Hu, whose names mean "kind-hearted" and "tiger," naturally goes by "Tony." Like any sophisticated communicator, Shan Hu understands that words often take on non-literal, idiomatic meanings that might be crude or offensive. Asking a tour group member, "What’s wrong with you?" meaning "Why are you so obnoxious?" is very different from asking, "What’s wrong?" meaning "Are you having a problem that I can help you resolve?"

Falling into that category are questions such as "What’s your problem?" and "What’s the matter with you?" and statements such as "You’re a trying person" when the intended meaning is "You try hard."

So to my friends, Wei Li and Shan Hu: Take care. Please give my regards (not my kind regards) to Charlie, Nick, and Jack, who also who did a wonderful job of taking care of us. We tried not to be too trying.



"It was thinkless of me. Did I make a mistake? . . . If you do not think, then you are thinkless, right? Like a man who does not harm is harmless?"




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