Chinglish: Amusing or Embarrassing?

May 13, 2010


Hyphen is happy to introduce our most newly minted blogger: Victoria Yue.  Victoria grew up in Northern Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, majoring in English and minoring in Art. Heeding the siren call of activism and negative 30-degree weather, she received her M.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University and now works as a communications specialist at an office supply company in Chicago, where she takes great pride in asking deeply probing questions about laminators and writing run-on sentences. Victoria knows a lot about giraffes, the Kardashians, Harry Potter, and ways to prevent scurvy.

Admit it: you let out a giggle when you saw a cautionary sign translated to read “The Little Grass Is Sleeping. Please Don’t Disturb It.” And you smirked at the above.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. A recent story in the New York Times about these misfired Chinese-to-English translations, known as “Chinglish,” reigned supreme on the news site the first week of May. 

While there’s no way to tell the demographics of the readers doing the sending, one thing is clear: the story and its accompanying slideshow stayed on NYT’s Most Emailed list for a week. In fact, the slideshow was so popular, the NYT came back a week later with a reader-generated photo gallery called “Strange Signs from Abroad.”

As an Asian American, my reaction to the original article went something like this:

-         Laughed (but quietly, because I was at work)

-         Felt guilty about laughing (also, because I was at work)

-         Went through the slideshow twice, trying to remember any mistranslations that I had encountered on my trips to Taiwan

-         Sent it to my friends 

The reactions were mixed. One of my college roommates, an Asian American, found it funny but also embarrassing. She pointed out that the article was similar to -- and also, the My Mom/Dad is a Fob websites -- which serves to chronicle language and cultural mishaps that are by turns endearing, hilarious and humiliating.

But why does bad English bring out such different responses in us?

I think a big thing is the source of the content.

It’s like this: Say you have a slightly embarrassing household object, like a deformed vase or something. Despite the fact that it’s a hideous vase, you have some inexplicable affection for it. You find the Ugly Vase Community Blog and post pictures of your horrible vase and share a good laugh with other people who own ugly vases, too.

But then, say, someone who did not have an ugly vase took pictures of your vase through a window and posted those pictures on a mainstream site. “This is hilarious,” they say in the caption. “This vase doesn’t even make any sense!” Do you still think it’s funny? After all, it’s still the same vase. Or do you feel a little uneasy that someone from outside your vase community is laughing at your vase for all the world to see?

I think that’s why the NYT article can make Asian Americans feel uncomfortable or guilty in a way that My Mom is a Fob does not. With the latter, the content comes from within the Asian American community and so becomes a form of bonding and empathy. But the former is posted on a major news site with the purpose of laughing at the content. I’m sure the good folks at the NYT didn’t mean to be offensive, but the article and the responses it elicits can sit uncomfortably with some viewers because it reads like an outsider looking in.

In the US, confused tourists are often treated with an attitude of “Know English if you’re going to come here.” So why is it that when Americans travel, there is this expectation for other countries to know English? Several readers who contributed photos to the second slideshow acknowledged that, aside from the English translation, they couldn’t read in the original language of the sign. The English on signs exists almost solely to aid travelers and tourists. Is it still funny if strangers from other countries mocked our attempts to help them with their travels?

But that’s just me. What are your thoughts on Chinglish? And do you think it’s reasonable to expect non-English speaking countries to have perfect English on their public signage?

Sound off -- but quietly. The little grass is sleeping.


Read the story and check out the slideshows here:

Shanghai is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish

A Sampling of Chinglish - Slideshow

Strange Signs from Abroad - Slideshow




Great article and great analogy with the vases. I love analogies and this post :-).

I never considered Chinglish from this angle before, but you do have a good point. Is it really so funny when the joke is made by someone who is "not one of us?"  I think it's unrealistic and a bit pompous to expect people outside NA to speak perfect English, however in this day of free online translators and global citizentry, it stands to reason that a government sign should be able to make grammatical sense! Guess it just speaks to the quality of their local English teachers.  Anyways, I think it's a cute thing to see when travelling. I especially remember being in Taiwan where the trend was all about graphic tees with English swear words in block letters - do you think they know what it really means??

Not to get lost in this is Vase rights. They've been oppressed for too long.


Awesome write-up! can't wait to read more!

Basically, Chinglish jokes are prejudicial.  The laughs are at Asian expense.  Rather than being part of a group of people laughing at the same things, we are being laughed at.

How many times have you've heard fake Asian accents spoken in English that have been thrown at you?  Usually done by white people.

Second, lets consider the collory, we do a stand up comedy routine that basically is all about redneck jokes and redneck stupidity.  I don't think we'd last that long.

And there is a big difference between being part of a group or a group of mixed friends who make fun of each other all in good fun. 

I'd like to laugh at Chinglish but I just can't just for the fact that we are being laughed at.  It's part of the ongoing prejudice, Asian male castration, and false Asian male weakness active triad that is propagated by mosty white males.

When I've been a subject of "Chinglish" or something prejudicial by colleages or even some non-Asian friends, I've returned the "favor" along the same lines, as part of an experiment.  Almost invairiably, the original perpertrator takes offence with my response.

As Jordana says, at least Asian countries bother to try and translate signs for the safety of English speaking tourists.  I'm associated with a hospital in southern california.  The only time they put up Chinese translations to help Chinese patients was when there was a swine flu scare a few years back.  How nice is that?  I pointed this out to one of the hospial administrators.

I'll start laughing when white people can take similar jokes from other ethnicities and there has been a dynamic change in which everyone is part the same group.

It's ok to laugh at one's self. It's definitely beyond inappropriate when another group is laughing at you.

Finally, though this is off the subject, where is the great celebration, respect, and honor for all those railroad workers who helped build the transcontinental railroad that paved the way to settle the Western United States(al lower wages)?  Where is the apology that the Chinese exclusion act (1882) was not repealed until 1943?  That's 61 years. Where is the apology that Chinese were not allowed to marry whites until 1948?  Where is the apology for the Los Angeles massacre of 1871 (500 whites killed 18 Chinese, including a doctor?  Where is the apology for restricting Chinese female immigration to America (paige law). How about all the Chinese(including)  left on Angel Island for months only to be forced to return to Asia?  And of course where is justice for Vincent Chen?

It is with this knowledge that I consider Chinglish as part of the whole derogatory picture.


Interesting article. Having lived in Taiwan for over ten years, I have witnessed a great deal of Chinglish and still find it fascinating and endearing. The article seems to be focused on written Chinglish, but spoken Chinglish is also prevalent. As a Westerner here who speaks Mandarin, I have conversations in Chinglish everyday. It just comes out quite naturally. Sometimes it can also be great fun! And not only that but don't be surprised if some Chinglish one day becomes part of ordinary English vernacular as China rises in influence (much like 'long time no see' is generally thought to be derived from 'hao jiu bu jian'). One great example of Chinglish that I can think of was Taiwan's campaign slogan to be allowed to rejoin the UN: "UN for Taiwan." I found it as brilliant a use of poor grammar as Apple's intentional "Think Different" - it cut through the language's tedious rules and went straight to the unmistakable point. However, I would have to say that in the case of Taiwan, the high degree of Chinglish signs stems from either arrogance (we don't need help) or negligence. There are plenty of people here for whom English is their native language - including many overseas-born Taiwanese. It would take minimal effort to have someone credible check over every English sign before it is posted. I, myself as an English editor of for a large Taiwan-based international advertising agency run into this all the time. Often a company will come up with an absolutely ridiculous slogan or product description and will refuse to have it edited because "that's the way they want it", or because they have someone one staff whose poor English skills they trust (often someone who studied abroad in an English-speaking country and some how managed to get a degree without learning the language well). I can only shake my head at the English some of the ads and brochures that we end up sending out to the international marketplace - and these are for high-tech machinery! However, to be honest, I think I would miss Chinglish if it were to altogether disappear. It has great character, is fun, endearing and has even more meaning if you speak Chinese and understand why the phrases were translated the way they are.

Not everyone is amused by these things for the same reasons.

When strange and/or amusing word juxtapositions are created in any language, it's going to surprise native speakers and probably make them laugh.

That enjoyment isn't always belittling or contemptuous.

Sure, there are those who feel a sense of superiority when they encounter weird usages, impromptu pidgins, etc.  But a lot of other people are laughing because these combinations of words are in and of themselves funny and sometimes delightful.  

In the latter case, it has nothing to do with not appreciating signage/labeling in English or efforts to help foreign visitors.

Anyway, the most colorful Chinglish/Engrish is often not intended to help foreigners, but is, instead, used purely aesthetically/decoratively, much like Asian character tattoos in the west have been used recently.

Any non-Asian who has visited East Asia and tried to speak the native language poorly is probably familiar with the experience of being considered a spectacle or an oddity, or, frequently, being blatantly mocked.  If you happen to look like a native, you've probably encountered open anger or scorn at your lack of language skills.  I would say that, because of the general historical trends in the movement of people, Westerners are actually far more likely to be understanding and considerate to people who try to speak their language imperfectly than most East Asians, simply because Westerners are more familiar with dealing with people who try because they have to (i.e., immigrants, etc. vs. privileged tourists).

I may have a little extra empathy when I hear funny Chinglish/Engrish because I have family members who struggle with English and make similar mistakes, etc., but when I laugh at Chinglish/Engrish, I laugh because it tickles my sense of absurdity as someone whose language is English.  It's not a judgment on those who make bizarre errors so much as a reaction to the internal flights of fancy such unusual phrases will trigger.  This is NOT the same reaction as teasing someone for having an Asian accent.

So not every non-Asian is mean-spirited about the amusement s/he gets out of Chinglish/Engrish.  And some Asians are very mean-spirited about their mocking of Chinglish/Engrish.  Is some of the reaction mean-spirited with overtones of cultural superiority and entitlement?  Absolutely.  Is all of it?  No.

Can we please stop trying to work from the premise that every non-Asian person's reaction to [x] Asian phenomenon is going to be the same?  It seems a wrong way to approach an examination of such things.

I do not think the Chinglish should be laughed at.
I tend to think it as Globish other than Chinglish.
China is not the only one who combines their own language and other languages.

The Chinese are making great effort to be more westernized by learning and practising English. People learn a new language from mistakes and practise.
In China, you can even see some small shops have their name translated in to English or even other language, however these attempts should not be laughed at, especially when you know that these shop owners do not know any English.
At Shenzhen University, there is a clobberer who repairs shoes, repair bicycles, clothes mainly for students, he also has put up a small board saying that"please coming". His workshop is just among several trees, made of some shabby paper and plastic stuff.
Anyway, the most colorful Chinglish is often not intended to help foreigners, but is used purely aesthetically/decoratively instead. They are much like Chinese character tattoos for the NBA players, for exmpale Allen Iverson from 76ers, Shawn Marion from Mavericks, Marquis Daniels from Pacers etc.