31 December 2013

Yellow Duck

One of the things I did while in Taiwan these past two weeks is turn the television on to a news channel and listen to the news over and over again. By the time I have heard the same item five or ten times, I can usually understand almost all of it, which is just brilliant in my efforts to improve my Chinese.

One of the amazing aspects of the news channels in Taiwan is the banality of some of the items. For example, some of the items that ran and ran while we were there are:

  • Some students were dissatisfied with the service in a small restaurant so one of them screwed up the menu and tossed it into a bowl of soup.
  • An old man didn't have enough money to buy a canister of gas to allow his wife to have a hot shower, so he stole one from outside a shop. But when he got home, his wife criticised him so much that he took the stolen canister back and returned it to the shop he had taken it from.
  • Some youths tossed a number of bicycles into the river, apparently because thy were bored.
  • A son-in-law of the President, Ma Yingjiu, got into an argument with someone in a restaurant.
  • A giant plastic yellow duck was inflated in Keelung harbour.

This last item was particularly prominent in the news all the time we were there. The problem was that, after a few days sitting in the harbour, the duck got rather dirty, and then the authorities tried to wash it. But the first efforts failed, and after research into appropriate detergents, half of it was cleaned, and then for a while it was a half-grey-half-yellow duck. Finally, just as it was all cleaned, it suddenly burst. This news even made it onto the BBC World News.

This repetition of really mundane news stories is just splendid for me. In all the time I was there, I heard almost no international news stories. Maybe some channels report international news, but I didn't find any such channels. It makes the news reported in Brunei's Media Permata or Borneo Bulletin seem quite weighty in comparison.


I spent the last two weeks in Taitung, in the east of Taiwan. For me, it was splendid to be surrounded all the time by people speaking Chinese – virtually nobody spoke English to me in all the time I was there. It is so different from Brunei, where I almost never have the opportunity to speak Malay, despite all the efforts I have spent trying to learn it.

One other thing about Taitung is how friendly and helpful people are. For example, I was walking along the road one day with my wife, who asked me (in Chinese), "Is this Qiangguo Street?", and someone who was just going past on her motorbike answered, "Yes, it is." We thought it was hilarious, that someone riding her motorbike would try and be helpful like that.

I spent quite a bit of time walking with my wife. One day, we walked out to the splendid Forest Park (森林公園), and then back again a couple of hours later, and an old fellow had seen us going and then coming back. He thought we were lost, so he hurried over to help us find the way, and as far as I could see, he wasn't trying to sell us anything or guide us to his own hotel or anything. When we assured him we were fine, he left us alone.

Finally, one more little anecdote: I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for my order, and two little girls, maybe five or six years old, came up to me, stared at me for a moment, and then asked (in Chinese), "Why is your nose so big?" So I asked them, "Why is your nose so small? Are you sure it's big enough to let you breathe?" They went away laughing, and then a couple of minutes later, they came back and asked, "How do you say 'sister' in English?" So I told them and said they should try and remember it for next time I saw them. It is hard for me to imagine that kind of interaction taking place in Brunei, where it is extremely unlikely that children would come and address me in Malay.

can / can't

I was recently doing some translation of a text from Chinese to English, together with my wife, and I translated the following:



you should do your best to see if you can't change things

My wife looked at it and suggested it should be can, not can't. When I looked at it again, I could find no way to explain why can't seems to be OK, and I could see no clear difference between the text above and:

you should do your best to see if you can change things

Given that this second version is more transparent, I decided to use it. But I find it bizarre that the sentence seems to mean the same thing whether it includes can or can't.

11 December 2013


All books have typos. Even my own books have a few, despite my efforts at proof-reading the text again and again and again. And while they can be annoying, a few typos don't matter too much. But sometimes if they are too frequent, they can seriously interfere with one's ability to understand a text.

I was recently reading a short story entitled The Phenwick Phenomena by the Singaporean writer Simon Tay, published in an anthology entitled One: The Anthology, and on page 127, I read this sentence:

He tried to rearrange the Singaporean poetry books in alphabetical order on the shelf next to the last, sun-faded copies of his own book but, as he diet he started flipping the pages of the boob he had meant to reshelf and reading the poems again, sitting down on another pile of books as if un a low stool.

Presumably, boob is supposed to be book, and un should be on. But diet? I am lost there.

The book is published by Marshall Cavendish, and one wonders what kind of copy editors they employ. How can a sentence like that be published?

03 December 2013

Brothers and Sisters

I previously discussed (here) the fact that Bruneians tend to include themselves when counting their siblings; so if I have one brother and two sisters, then speakers of English in Brunei would tend to say that I have four siblings.

My UBD colleague, James McLellan, has told me that this comes from Malay, where the following sentence:

Saya ada empat orang adik-beradik
    I   have   four (people) brothers-and sisters

would mean 'I am one of four children', not 'I have four brothers and sisters'; and various FASS collaeagues, including our Dean, Noor Azam, yesterday confirmed this usage.