“It’s totally foreign”

Photo credit Jake Rosenberg for W Hotels

Photo credit Jake Rosenberg for W Hotels

So, it was a short fashion (“Styles” section) article so I don’t mean to say this is even trying to be authoritative. But it’s a bit meaningful in the category understanding/misunderstanding eachother. This pretty pic caught my eye in Sunday’s paper, a NYC-based fashion designer on a junket to Beijing, seeking inspiration at the Summer Palace, walking distance from where we lived. She says the first thing she did was hope on the subway:

“Nothing is written in English so you need to get detailed descriptions of what the characters look like for where you’re going…It’s totally foreign.”

As riders of Beijing’s massive subway system know, not only are all the signs in English — and maps and electronic notices. There is also an announcer’s voice, that comes on at every station, to say where you are, IN ENGLISH!

All Beijing subway maps are in Mandarin and English

All Beijing subway maps are in Mandarin and English

So what’s up with that? Is the narrative of “It’s totally foreign” so overriding that it has the power to overtake a really clear & obvious physical reality? Or maybe she was never really on the subway? Just thought it would be cool to say that? (Or is she a teeny bit crazy? Or did the writer make it up?) The other thing that’s odd about it is this designer has lived in the Arabian Gulf, and a few cities in Europe, before moving to the US.

The semiotician of colonial framing in me says, this is othering that happens unconsciously, even when it contradicts actual reality.

It’s really pretty considerate of Beijing – in a country that is Jekyll-&-Hyde, at best, in welcoming foreigners, but generally speaking is not that fond – to have all the capital’s subway signs, maps & announcements in English as well as Mandarin. More than you can say for NYC!!!!

[Lots of people probably noticed! The next day this ran online:

Correction: An earlier version of this post included a quotation from Ms. Nonoo that referred incorrectly to Beijing’s mass transit system. The subway has signage in English as well as in Chinese; it is not the case that “Nothing is written in English.” The quotation has been removed.”]

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