Posted by Adam J. Schokora on Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 3:02 PM
This humorous piece was written by the always witty Kaiser Kuo and first published in a recent edition of The Beijinger and on Ogilvy China's Digital Watch blog). It is published below with permission of the author.
Forbidden Clichés: A guide for visiting journalists
Welcome to Beijing, friends from the foreign press! I greet you on behalf of the many expatriates who’ve lived in Beijing for years. We’re all really eager to read the stories you file. We can’t wait to see what this city, which we know all too well, looks like from the perspective of visiting journalists — you, with your keenly honed observational abilities and your uncanny wordsmithery. (Is that a word?)
I thought that it might be helpful to you — and I don’t doubt your professionalism — if someone pointed out for you some of the more well-worn phrases that still, alas, tend to find their way into English-language media coverage of China. This will, I hope, save you from embarrassing realization that for your “color piece” on Beijing you’ve filed the same stupid, cliché-ridden drivel as 18 other hacks, and will save us, the frightfully cynical expatriates of Beijing, a lot of groaning, tearing out of hair, and unpleasant vomiting.
Let me just say that I completely understand the pressure you’ll be under to file, as your bureaus are spending good money to send you out here. And I know there will be considerable competitive pressure, what with 30,000 of you all descending on the city like so many curious locusts with reporters’ notebooks. Read the suggestions below and your stories will stand out, and everyone will be happy — you, your editors, your readers, the Pulitzer committee, and most importantly, me.
Topping the list of forbidden clichés is the phrase “coming out party.” As apt as it may have been when first used with reference to the Games shortly after they were awarded to Beijing back in 2001, after appearing in 75.4% of stories about the 2008 Olympics in the seven intervening years, it now incites English-speaking expats to an ugly, violent rage. Use it at your own peril; you have been warned.
Please do not write “Beijing is a city of stark contrasts” and refrain from using any variation thereof — “a city of startling juxtapositions,” or (needless to say) “a city of yin and yang.” Not that it isn’t a city of, um, rather pronounced differences; it’s just too damned lazy an observation to make. A special enjoinder to photographers: please resist the temptation to position yourself in a hutong with a decrepit but charming tile-roofed courtyard home in the foreground and a shiny, hyper-modern steel-and-glass skyscraper rising behind. No using Blade Runner comparisons for Beijing. You’ll want to save those for Shanghai, believe me.
The bureaus of reputable western papers here in China have a rule against quoting taxi drivers. But since Beijing’s cabbies are so fabulously colorful, you will be permitted one exception. Make it a good one. Helpful hint: That story about efforts by our city’s cabbies to learn English phrases? That one’s been written several thousand times so please, anything but that one.
While we’re on the subject, the imperfect grasp of English evinced by your hosts — the ubiquitous “Chinglish” signage, that sort of thing — has also been done to death. To be fair, so has Chinese-language coverage of the moronic Chinese character tattoos so popular among some Westerners.
No writing “There is an ancient Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.’” There isn’t such a curse. No writing “the Chinese word for crisis includes the character for opportunity and the character for danger.” That it may be true doesn’t reduce my aggravation each time I see it in print. In fact, just to be safe, avoid anything involving “an ancient Chinese saying.” This will save you, anyhow, from having to Google for choice quotes from Sun Tzu or Confucius’s Analects.
Try your best to avoid phrases like “China’s rising middle class,” “the Little Emperors” and “ideological (or moral) vacuum.” Find a descriptive for security personnel other than “stone-faced.” And only use “Great Leap Forward” if you’re covering events like the triple jump or pole-vaulting.
You’re not really surprised to see how many Starbucks, KFCs, and McDonalds there are here, are you? Your readers won’t be either. If you have any sense, you’ll take full advantage of your time in Beijing and try out lots of the city’s excellent restaurants. There will be plenty to write about your culinary adventures without resort to “those exotic Chinese – they’ll eat anything” clichés. Yes, there are restaurants here that specialize in donkey meat and in pig faces, and even – gasp! – dog. Whoop-de-do.
For you mousse-coiffed, Mr. Gravitas TV anchor types and you sotto voce public radio types: Please oh please stop saying “Bay-zheeng.” The pronunciation of the city’s name couldn’t be easier. It’s just Bay-jing.” Jing as in “jingle bells.” It’s really that easy. Jesus Christ.
No making fun of the Fuwa, the pronouncedly Nipponic mascots of the Beijing Olympic Games. Let’s face it: they’re way too easy a target, and during this season in which the world gathers in celebration of good sportsmanship, taking cheap shots at the Fuwa is just too unsportsmanlike. Besides, my four- and two-year-olds both like them a lot. Especially Jing Jing. That’s pronounced “Jing Jing,” not “Zheeng Zheeng.”
Pronunciation is important. Remember that before you pun, you should make sure the Chinese word you’re hoping to pun on actually does sound like the English word you’re trying to evoke. You don’t know how many times I’ve sat scratching my head before realizing that the pun only works with a really twisted mispronunciation of the Chinese.
While we’re on puns, some common ones to avoid include pander/panda and the always irksome Peking/peeking. And no using “your average Zhou” or “Zhou Sixpack.” There will be absolutely no punning on the interrogatives “who” or “when” and the family names of the Chinese president and premier, respectively. I know you’re thinking, “Hu knows Wen I’ll get another chance like this?” and I feel for you, but just resist it, okay?
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