Category Archives: Sayings

Preparing for a Chinese future

The school bully is always scared of someone, whatever they tell you. And if you think of the United States as the one time big kid in the playground, then China is the 6ft 7in guy from the neighboring school that deep down has Johnny America quaking in his boots.

Personally, I’ve got no problem with a Chinese takeover. I mean, what’s not to like about literacy rates in the 90% range, pandas, and all the General Tso’s chicken you can eat. OK, the picky amongst you might have some kind of issue with their human rights policies and prevalence of female infanticide, but these are all details that we can work out in the surrender agreement.

Anyway, in readiness for the US transition to Chinese rule, I thought I’d take a look at a few Chinese proverbs and translate them for use in New York life. After all, you can never be too prepared.

1. The fish that nibbles at every bait will be caught
New York version – The attorney general who enjoys sleeping with prostitutes will eventually find himself on the wrong end of a wire tap.

2. He who asks is a fool for five minutes. But he who does not ask remains a fool forever.
New York version – He who asks a question of his server at a sandwich shop will be sneered at forever. But he who does not ask will end up with peanut butter and sundried tomatoes on focaccia.

3. A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
New York version – The crazy lady in the diner is not crazy because she is clinically insane. She is crazy because she hopes to be spotted for a new reality TV show on Bravo.

4. Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.
New York version – Be not afraid of walking slowly, be afraid only of impatient New Yorkers trampling you to death in a bid to get past you.

5. When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one and a lily with the other.
New York version – When you only have two dollars left in the world, get on the subway and start asking for spare change.

6. Virtue is never left to stand alone. He who has it will have neighbors.
New York version – A person with an iPad, iPhone or other expensive device is never left to stand alone in a public place. He who has it will have neighbors, with snatchy hands and an ability to run quickly.

7. Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
New York version – Our greatest glory is not in never being pushed over by impatient commuters as the subway door closes, but in ensuring that your scarf doesn’t get caught in the door in the process.

8. There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same
New York version – There are many ways to the same subway station, but none of them go express at the weekend.

9. One mouse dropping ruins the whole pot of rice porridge
New York version – one mouse dropping is a sign of cleanliness at your local Taco Bell

10. When your horse is on the brink of a precipice it is too late to pull the reins.
New York version – When your taxi is doing 90mph on the FDR, it’s your own damn fault that you accepted that dodgy cab at La Guardia in the first place.

Be your guest? I don’t think so…

For the most part, I love high(er)-end/speciality food shops like Whole Foods or Balducci’s. Having been spoiled with Waitrose or Marks & Spencer’s food hall all my life, there’s something thoroughly decent about being treated like a discerning food lover once again. With lovingly prepared foods, a shockingly good cheese counter and fruit that doesn’t look like it’s been through a ten round battle with a sledgehammer, these places feed my inner foodie.

But what I can’t stand – nay, truly can’t abide – about these stores is their absolute stubborn pigheaded blindingly irritating insistence on referring to me as their ‘guest’. Every time I reach the head of the queueline, and get called forward to pay for my products, I’ll be greeted with the plaintiff cry of “next guest please” as if I’ve been personally invited into the home of Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca. And the practice is spreading – this weekend, spotty Bernice at the Gap deigned me with “guest” status as I waited to pay for my holiday shorts.

Look, I know you’re all just trying to be polite, and really I should be grateful at any pleasantry in a city where a grunt of sheer indifference is the closest you get to a term of endearment. But, let’s be honest, you don’t really view me as your guest, do you?

If I’m your guest, and you invite me to fill my trolley with as much gourmet grub as I like, I presume you’re not going to make me pay for it before I walk out? After all, I’m your guest, and which host with the most treats their guests like that?

If I’m your guest, I’m going straight to the tea section to help myself to some PG Tips, and then I’ll happily wander into the food preparation area to put the kettle on. Don’t worry, I’ll ask if anyone else wants a cuppa – I was brought up properly, after all.

And if I’m your guest, I’m sure you won’t mind if I pop in and borrow a shirt and a pair of jeans when I get soaked to the skin in an unexpected rainstorm. I’ll bring them back, obviously. It might take a couple of months, admittedly. Many apologies if that white top is a little bit pink, by the way – those red socks get everywhere, don’t they?

Grunt work

You’d probably have to speak to my mum about this, but it’s a fair bet to assume that when I was an insolent teen, barely a two syllable word crossed my lips. After all, why use a complicated phrase when a perfunctory grunt will suffice? Insufferable teen boys bear more resemblance to mountain gorillas than the insufferable grown men they will eventually become. Although gorillas at least tidy up after themselves, and don’t throw a strop when they’re told that they can’t watch Grange Hill and need to set the table instead.

Of course, the tried-and-tested stock phrase of the teen – male or female – is ‘uh-huh’. ‘Uh-huh’ is the gift that just keeps on giving. Trying to get an overbearing grandparent off the phone? Just ‘uh-huh’ in response to every single question (especially when the question is ‘are you capable of saying anything other than ‘uh-huh’?). Want peas with that? ‘Uh-huh’ to your heart’s content (even if the thought of peas makes your stomach turn – then at least you can throw a tantrum when they’re eventually put on your plate).

But, as I believe Paul said when he hastily typed one of his lengthy emails to the Corinthians, when we become men, we put away childish things. Or at least hide them in the corner and hope that nobody will notice. ‘Uh-huh’ was banished to the outer-reaches of our consciousness, and only called upon on occasions of national importance. Such as when The Special One asks me if I want another beer while United are on the attack in a vital season-altering game.

So ‘uh-huh’ was abandoned at about age 17, and never heard from again. Until I came to the United States, that is. Here, ‘uh-huh’ falls into the facile platitude category, and I swear that I hear it on a near daily basis. It’s essentially substituting for ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘it was nothing’. Or even ‘you’re bloody lucky that I’m such a nice guy and have demeaned myself by helping you out’.

It’s weirdly off-putting though to thank somebody profusely for their contribution to a project (even if that project is ‘ensuring that my caffeine level doesn’t dip below a five cup minimum’) and have them respond with a phrase more suited to a sweetcandy stealing youth with oozing spots and a penchant for mutilation, than to a smartly-dressed professional.

I’ve decided that the only way to counter this verbal drift is by turning the tables. Next time somebody asks me ‘what’s up’, I’m going to launch into a prolonged discussion of Japanese economics, and the effects of optimum taxation on the common man.

It’s the only language these people understand.

Let there be (saintly) love

As regular readers will know, I’m not a particular fan of abbreviating words or finding shorter ways of saying things. I always prefer calling friends David rather than Dave, for example. Although only if they are actually called David. I tried calling my friend Liz ‘David’ once. Suffice to say that these days she’s less ‘my friend Liz’, and more ‘Liz’.

When it comes to Christmas, I absolutely point blank refuse to call it ‘Xmas’. Yes, I know that it’s derived from the Greek for ‘Christ’, but exactly how lazy do you have to be to say ‘ex-mass’ rather than ‘Christmas’. That millisecond that you save is hardly going to be the key factor that prevents you from achieving world peace and instead condemns man to a life of pestilence, war and famine, is it?

So today (he said, sounding progressively more like the grumpy old man that he fears he may well be becoming), I’m finding myself unwittingly engaged in a one man crusade to remind people that February 14th should be known as Saint Valentines Day, as opposed to Valentines Day. Nobody in this country uses the ‘St’ anymore, it would appear. It doesn’t appear in news coverage, it doesn’t appear in incessant adverts persuading me to buy chocolates, and it doesn’t even appear on the ‘Valentines’ cards themselves.

I wished The Special One a happy St Valentines Day this morning, and she looked at me as if I had wished her a Merry Little Smurfmas. Even the (very funny and apt) blogs I’ve read today from Brits and Americans alike have insisted on calling it Valentines Day.

Maybe I just missed a meeting when a group decision was taken to drop the saint? Or perhaps it’s for the same reason that I have to say ‘happy holidays’ rather than ‘happy Christmas’? Whatever the case, it’s frankly taking the pisssaint.

I know as much as the next man that Hallmark have hijacked this old fertility festival and turned it into an easy way of boosting sales at an otherwise difficult time of the year. But at least let’s try to stick to the – ahem – romance of the original inspiration. Let’s face it, it’s got to be better to feel you’re being persuaded into a outward demonstration of love to honour the memory of a dead bloke from Rome, rather than because of the difficult first quarter of American Greetings’ financial year?

Now, hands up all of you who think that this unmitigated rant is going to help me when The Special One discovers that I haven’t bought her roses?

Me neither.

Le petit dejeuner

Whatever you think about the French, you can’t help but admire their collective desire to protect their language. The French tongue is, after all, one of the things that defines them most as a nation, and it is rightly their belief that any attempts to erode its significance – particularly by the gathered forces of the English speaking world – is something to be resisted.

Famously, France is the nation that placed quotas on the amount of French language music that legally has to be played on radio stations around the country. To this day, around 40% of all music played on French radio stations has to be sung in French, and companies that fail to comply can face fines of up to 5% of their annual revenues.

Given that French is one of the most beautiful languages on this planet, I’m all for any laws that help preserve its integrity. And to be honest, maybe the laws should be extended to the United States as well.

When it comes down to it, the Americans still haven’t forgiven the French for failing to stand by them when it came to invading Iraq. Obviously by far the biggest weapon of reprisal that America had at its disposal was renaming French fries as ‘freedom fries’. This is a vindictive slight that the French may never recover from. After all, how could a country with a reputation as being the greatest gastronomic nation on earth ever get over the fact that the United States would cease to use the French tag to describe deep-fried bits of potato?

Perhaps having realiszed the ridiculousness of their efforts, America has returned to adopting the British tactic of undermining the French by use of the powerful tool of deliberate mispronunciation.

Infact, America may be the one nation that makes even less effort to use proper French than the English do. In France last week, ‘merci’ (‘thank you’ in English) was bastardised by most Americans from its traditional ‘mare-sea’ to ‘mercy’, while it’s best not even to think about what they do with words like foie gras.

It’s all understandable of course – while British schoolkids were being forced to learn French, our American counterparts were reluctantly attempting to learn Spanish. But some words have become so engrained in the American vocabulary that their mispronunciation can only be part of a deliberate attempt to stick two fingers up atgive the finger to the French.

All of which brings me to the croissant. Yes, that curl of delicious pastry that is so irresistible to people of all nationalities. To everybody outside of America, it’s known as the cwa-ssan or cra-wa-ssan. Within the boundaries of the United States, it’s the cress-ont.

Sadly, I can’t quite bring myself to mispronounce it, which means that anytime I want a croissant, I generally either have to desperately point at my intended breakfast bread – or else shamefacedly translate into American, and hope that no European hears me. Still, if I can’t make people understand me when I’m speaking English, what chance have I got with French?

There’s only one solution to the problem. Yup, it’s back to having a bagel for breakfast.

Short not sweet

As I’ve said before, sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that I’m in America. Aside from the fact that I moved here from London and one city is generally pretty much like another, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that wherever you are in the world, you slowly get used to things. As another UK-to-US migrant Fish Without A Bicycle recently said in the comments on this blog, she’s found herself abandoning her knife in favour of just using a fork despite her better efforts. I imagine that the crumbling of the British Empire many years ago began in a similarly (seemingly innocuous) fashion.

One thing that has definitely lessened in my consciousness is the US accent. Unless I hear a particularly extreme accent, the days when I quietly used to think to myself “for some reason I appear to be surrounded by Americans” seem to have long gone.

But every so often, somebody will say something – or more often, I’ll read it – and I will be brought kicking and screaming to the reality that I am in a country that speaks a language that is sometimes as foreign to me as, say, Cantonese.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that English is a fluid living language that continuously evolves. And the UK can hardly be considered innocent of all crimes against language. It’s not easy to be proud of a country whose kids have invented the word ‘gopping’ for ‘disgusting’, after all.

But in New York it seems that every existing word needs to be shortened in a bid to use as few characters as possible. It’s almost as if some people believe they are taxed for every letter they use in conversation. Or maybe it’s just an attempt to limit any movement of the mouth that’s not for stuffing popcorn in?

I guess I don’t mind some of the more comic-book shortenings such as ‘shrooms’ for mushrooms, or even ‘toon’ for cartoon. But is there really any need for ‘gator’ or ‘roach’? Does it really save you that much time?

My current bete-noire is the replacement of neighbourhood with ‘nabe’. Every time I see it, I cringe with embarrassment and shame. Even news organiszations are using it now, such as the New York Post sub-headline here. In reaction, I might just have to start lengthening all my words, becoming some overly-verbose English buffoon who takes ten minutes just to ask where the nearest bank is.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to ask the superintendent of the condominium in which I am currently residing to give me directions as to where I might catch an omnibus. I’ll be back for some more weblogging soon.

Hello hello hello

One of the things that I constantly get asked by people back in the UK is how long it’s going to take for me to lose my British accent, or get some kind of mid-Atlantic twang. Frankly, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, and if I ever start talking about a-loo-min-um foil, or begin to refer to my ‘mom’ then something is rotten in the state of Brooklyn.

And don’t get me started on words like ‘Peter’ and ‘water’ – somehow the t’s appear to go missing in action in this country, only to be magically replaced by d’s. If you ever hear me asking ‘Peeder’ if he wants a glass of ‘warder’, then you have my absolute permission to shoot me.

Of course, it’s the natural instinct of man to adapt to his surroundings. When The Matchmakers used to come to visit me in the UK, Mr Matchmaker was an incredibly adaptable accent chameleon. By the end of a week long stay, he could conceivably find gainful employment as a butler in the most old-fashioned of country piles.

For me though, there’s one reason above all others why I could never give in to accent slip. It’s the fact that I could never manage to say ‘what’s up’ with a straight face.

For the vast majority of Americans, the word ‘hello’ has been replaced by ‘what’s up’. Walking out of the office to get a sandwich yesterday, I was ‘what’s upped’ by no less than four people in a thirty second period. Including two people who simultaneously what’s upped me as I left the liftelevator. And another who slapped me on the shoulder.

To most Brits, ‘what’s up’ is used as a phrase to denote concern or worry. It is not a greeting, and it is certainly not a rhetorical question. Only now am I slowly realiszing that I do not need to respond. For the last three months, my casual greetings have gone something like this:

Vague acquaintance: “Hey, what’s up?”

BOOW: “Well, I’ve been struggling recently with a bit of a sore leg. I think it all started when I went to the gym and got tangled up in that elliptical thing that really hurts your back if you’re on it for too long. You know, the one with the ski handles? Anyway, then The Special One made me carry sixty three boxes up the stairs to the apartment, and I think I might have done some permanent damage, as I’m really having difficulty sleeping. Anyway, just as I finally managed to sit down, the phone rang and then I got caught up in a thirty-five minute conversation with a call centre in Mumbai about why I should take car insurance. I wouldn’t mind but we don’t even have a car. Apart from tha…”

Vague acquaintance: “Sorry to interrupt, but I’ve got to go gnaw my own arm off.”

I have no idea why ‘hello’ won’t suffice, to be honest. Or even a simple ‘how are you?’ At least I know that’s a question that demands an answer, even if the person who asked it isn’t remotely interested in the answer. It just allows me to respond to with a jaunty ‘I’m fine’, and be on my way. As it is, I now just laugh like a halfwit when anybody gives me a ‘what’s up’, in a manner that’s designed to say ‘Things are crazy around here’ but which probably just sounds like ‘I’m a nervous socially inadequate Brit – please don’t hurt me.’

Incidentally, I quickly Google searched ‘what’s up’ to see if I could shed any light on its origin. I didn’t get very far before being bogged down in 4 Non Blondes videos, but I did find a fascinating entry on Wikipedia. The short article claimed that ‘what’s up’ is now being abbreviated in many forms for the SMS and IM era, notably “sup”, “waz up”, “wts up”, “wts new” and “waz happenin”. My personal favourite though is “waz crackalackin”. And you wonder why I’m confident that I’m not going to find myself Americaniszed?

Anybody who can provide documentary and verified evidence that they managed to use the phrase ‘crackalackin’ at least once in a work context, by the way, gets a gold star and the freedom of the Brit Out Of Water kingdom.