'With a name like Kevin Fong, I was expecting ...

February 25, 2005

... someone more foreign looking.' Our columnist falls foul of expectations in China

One of the fringe benefits of lecturing is that you're likely to get asked to talk somewhere nice, possibly even abroad. What you get out of it has much to do with how you negotiate the potential pitfalls, such as language barriers. The following is a cautionary tale.

About this time last year I found myself invited by the British Council to talk in Beijing. Ancestrally I have a number of ties to China. My family left there more than 100 years ago and I have never been, so I thought a lecture might be a nice excuse for a first visit to the homeland. Now, despite my heritage, I don't speak a word of any dialect of Chinese.

Naively I thought that this wouldn't present a significant obstacle.

The trip started as it would go on. The guy who picked me up from the airport in Beijing had difficulty finding me. Later he would confess to his boss that, with a name like "Kevin Fong", he was expecting someone more foreign-looking. The next couple of days followed this pattern. They were filled with dozens of short conversations that would start in Cantonese, follow with a shrug and an apology (in English from me) and finish with a frown and bemusement from whoever was trying in vain to communicate with me.

At one point, displaying what in hindsight now seems like incredible optimism or supreme denial, I went off to explore the city intent on sampling the local cuisine. I barrelled up to an authentic-looking eatery, smiled at the waitress and established in the now familiar two sentences of embarrassing exchange that she and none of her colleagues spoke any English. She helpfully gestured at the menu, written entirely in Chinese, after which I spent about 30 seconds considering the pros and cons of playing restaurant lottery in downtown Beijing before accepting defeat. Ten minutes later, facing down a burger and fries ordered in the international language of "pointing at the picture", I was very nearly in tears.

I was beginning to realise that, as far as my appearance and language skills were concerned, the whole reality-expectation mismatch thing might present some problems during the lecture. The talk was to be simultaneously translated, line-by-line, and I had failed to appreciate how much this would alter the structure of the thing or indeed the time it was going to take to give it. For the first time in a little while I was getting quite anxious about the prospect of standing in front of people and speaking.

Ultimately, it was Keith from the British Council who put me at ease. He, a Yorkshireman with an accent to match, spoke fluent Cantonese, having lived in Beijing for the past three years. And while this in some ways added insult to injury, Keith reassured me that everything would be fine and that he would be there to chair me in.

On the night of the lecture itself, I stood nervously in the wings while Keith took the podium. The auditorium was more like a concert hall than a lecture theatre and I could feel the panic rising. Keith delivered a short, punchy introduction, none of which I understood, but one that succeeded in reducing the audience to fits of laughter. Thinking that it was going to be OKafter all, I took the stand. But, despite Keith's great warm-up, I never quite got the crowd back on side and, after a series of genuinely lost-in-translation jokes had rolled under the podium and died, I was happy to retreat. Afterwards I quizzed Keith on the content of the introduction.

To which he replied: "I just said: This is Dr Kevin Fong and, despite appearances, he doesn't speak a word of Chinese, but not to worry, I can assure you that his English is perfect."

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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