Sometimes you have to actually go somewhere to get a true sense of the place. A TV special or even an article in a pictorial-laden publication such as National Geographic doesn’t begin to give you the complete picture: the sounds and smells of the place, the foreign-ness of the local language, the feeling of tranquility or danger, and most especially, the unusual application of English that is endemic in the areas of the world where “the mother tongue” is not the first language.
Case in point: in Hong Kong a few months back, I was looking out the tour bus window when I saw a hastily painted sign (in English) on the side of a building, a scribbling of the caliber usually associated with gang “tagging”, suggesting someone’s extreme dissatisfaction with “Chin’s Grocery Store” (see title, above). Sadly, since this is a PG-rated column, I cannot include a picture (although you can rest assured that I took literally dozens), but suffice it to say that it was about the crudest epithet that could be lodged in English against the aforementioned grocery store. A word which, had I used it in my childhood, would have caused my mouth to be washed out with soap by my mortified mother. And here it was, in capital letters, in plain view of the tour bus, adorning the side wall of a pleasant-seeming neighborhood food market.
So, when the bus made its next pit stop at some cultural oasis or another, I took the guide aside and asked what was up with Chin’s, what on earth a grocery store could possibly have done to engender such animosity. She looked a bit perplexed as she flipped through the images on the screen of my digital camera, then gave a big grin as she realized exactly what she was seeing. “Um, this is a bad word in America, no?” I acknowledged that it was, without a doubt, the baddest of English bad words. “Here,” she said, “it is not a bad word. It is just the store owner’s first name.” Excuse me? Let me get this straight: old Mr. and Mrs. Chin named their newborn son (*$@&@%#@!? “It is not so uncommon here,” she went on. And indeed, this turned out to be the case: as the day progressed, I found several other examples of the unexpected given name, on billboards, shop windows and once on the side of a delivery van.
It got me to thinking in a couple of odd directions: first, what if Mr. and Mrs. Chin moved their family to the US? Poor (*$@&@%#@! would be suspended from school on day one, after answering the very first question posed to him by his new teacher. Or spin it the other way: an American family with a grade-school-age kid visits Hong Kong, whereupon young offspring happens upon the aforementioned sign. “Hey dad, check that out…” The father, upon assessment of the situation, posits that (*$@&@%#@! is actually somebody’s name. The kid, realizing the street cred that this discovery will give him upon returning home, basks in the sensual warmth that only an unpunished bad word can summon up in one that age. The mother grabs the dad urgently by the elbow, flashes him a dark look and mutters under her breath, “I told you we should have taken him to Epcot.”