A cup of fine tea: Ouyang Yu’s “Bad English”

Ouyang Yu’s “Bad English” [Read the poem here]
(First published in issue #4 of Cha)

– This post is written by Tammy Ho.

As someone whose second language is English, this poem resonated with me. I suppose that some people may find it slightly offensive, as it appears to make fun of non-native English speakers. But is there something else underneath this gentle mocking? I think there is as this poem not only provides a commentary on the versatility of the English language, it also suggests a kind of fresh perspective that non-native speakers can bring to the language.

At the beginning of the poem, the main character, an aging professor teaching English in China, finds himself facing the realities of old age: ‘Teaching English in China / The old professor can’t help / The fact that his hair is turning grey’ (L1-L3). But it is not just old age that is changing his hair, but teaching in China itself. In the next stanza, the poem subtly begins to reveal what about his experience in the middle kingdom is aging him quickly: ‘An email letter leaves him / Upset for days without knowing why’ (L4-L5). There is a hint to the cause of his distress, and therefore his greying hair, in the slight strangeness of ‘an email letter’. More is unveiled when we learn the email ‘begins with this: ‘Dear Mr professor Richard” (L6). The email, obviously from a student, is almost comical in its poor English usage and is clearly a source of much frustration for the professor. The poem goes on: ‘Student papers are written in such a way / That how much effort goes into fixing them / He invariably sees a new English cropping up postgraduateswise’ (L7-L9).

In the fourth stanza, the poet quotes some examples of this ‘new English’ used by the students: ”I felt boring when days after days were spent meaninglessly’ / ‘He doted him and he doted her’ / ‘Grandma cared me so much she does something out of expectation” (L10-L12). The poet’s examples are well chosen. It is indeed a hard task for Asian speakers to learn the difference between the –ed participle and the –ing participle in cases such as ‘boring’ and ‘bored’; no matter how many times someone is told that ‘boring’ describes the characteristics of something and ‘bored’ is a feeling, it is still easy to confuse them. In the second example, we see the omission of the preposition ‘on’. Forgetting or misusing a preposition or prepositional phrase is a common mistake for English learners, especially because their rules must often be memorised and can seem arbitrary or contradictory. (It may also be possible that there is some confusion in the use of personal pronouns. Is the same person doting on both a man and a woman as is suggested by the sentence? Or are a man and a woman supposed to be doting on one another?) The third example consists of a number of mistakes, even though the word choice reveals a nearly comprehensible meaning.

Comprehensible meaning: perhaps this is the most we can expect from the majority of second-language learners. The professor seems resigned to this fact in the following stanza: he ‘decides that it’s probably just as well / His grasshopper arms powerless against the onslaught / Of an English in spite of itself’ (L13-L15). To demonstrate his new found attitude, he decides as a farewell to use the students’ own language: ‘So, in his last class, he found time to speak / Their language’ (L16-L17). Deliberately copying and echoing the students’ grammatical mistakes, he describes his excitement about going home: ‘I felt exciting at the thought / Of returning to Oz as living here I often feel boring // I objected myself speaking such bad English’ (L17-L19).

The possessive pronoun ‘their’ is loaded with meanings. The professor is not really using ‘their’ language, as the students’ language would be Chinese. Is there a hint of Western arrogance here? It would seem so as the use of the word ‘their’ also reveals a sense of superiority, a feeling that his students are not speaking real English or at least the English he considers proper. Perhaps this is why the professor has decided to ‘return to Oz’ (note the literary and possibly geographical reference here), fearing that his English is deteriorating while in China. Or are we being too harsh on the professor? ‘Their’ may just suggest that he is trying to show his fondness for his students in a humorous way by mocking them affectionately. The last lines may show that the professor has true admiration for his students’ innovative and unconventional use of English: ‘I do care you and I admire you / For things like this: ‘On that day’s noon’ / And your brilliant slips of pen, like this: / ‘We must all uphold human tights” (L20-L23). Regardless of the professor’s true emotion, the last line may be a serious comment on the state of China. Does the students’ use of ‘human tights’ reflect on the country’s failure to respect ‘human rights’?

One of my close friends, who is now teaching English in China, has had similar experiences with his students. However, as a Westerner, he is unsure if it would be appropriate for him to write such a poem, as it may be seen as offensive by some. Do you think that this is the case? And would it change your view on the poem if it were written by a local Chinese person or a person of Asian descent who had grown up in the West?

Ouyang Yu graduated from La Trobe University with a doctoral degree in Australian literature. He has published more than twenty-five books in Chinese and English in the fields of fiction, poetry, literary translation and literary criticism, and has won a number of major grants for fiction, non-fiction, poetry and translation. Yu’s best-known works in English are his poetry collections Moon Over Melbourne and Other Poems (1995), Songs of the Last Chinese Poet (1997), short-listed for the 1999 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, and Two Hearts, Two Tongues and Rain-Coloured Eyes (2002). His first novel, The Eastern Slope Chronicle, was published in 2002. This book won the Festival Award for Innovation in Writing at the 2004 Adelaide Bank Festival of Arts, apart from being short-listed for the Community Relations Commission Award, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2003. The book is now put on the syllabus in the English Department, University of Sydney. Yu is the founding editor of Otherland, the first and only bilingual journal of Chinese-Australian writing. Visit his website for more details.

8 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Ouyang Yu’s “Bad English””

  1. Caleb Powell Says:

    Great poem. I taught English (TESL) for eight years. I studied language, as well, and know that mistakes happen. I believe the best approach is to have humor and confidence. Laugh at mistakes when they are funny. Speak without letting self-conciousness impair, and if you butcher the language, learn from your errors.

  2. Biby Says:

    Interesting. As a non-native speaker “teaching English as a second language”, I have come across a lot of discussions concerning this pheonomenon. Here are some ideas which I find quite insightful:

    (1) One of my colleagues think that English is not a “second language” for most Asians. Maybe it is for Singaporeans, but in places like Hong Kong, English is only a “foreign language” for most people. It sounds weird but yes – If it’s only a foreign language and if people learn it for fun, do we need to bother so much about grammar?

    (2) When I was doing my teacher training which promoted “task-based” English teaching, professors told us to be more “lenient” towards students’ grammatical mistakes. For teachers, the bottom-up task-based methods are less efficient than the top-down rule-based methods. We don’t really have enough time to provide endless examples until students “discover” the rules of the language. Honestly, we spend less time clarifying trivial grammar issues.

    (3) When I attended a course about teaching English to low-achievers. The speaker kept on reminding us not to mark students’ work with too many symbols, arrows and rewritten sentences. These would only discourage them and they simply wouldn’t want to try again. I have tried not to mark too “bloodily”, but I doubt – if I send the books back to the students without telling them each mistake, will they think those are acceptable?

    I become more and more confused and I really have no conclusion on the matter. But my prediction is that some frequently made errors in grammar may become something like foreign accents in pronunciation: You may say they are unconventional but you can also argue that the (wrong) language can still achieve its communicative purpose.

  3. Jonathan Mendelsohn Says:

    This is one passionate critique! Should all the world read so engaged.

  4. Esther Says:

    I don’t find this offensive at all! Interesting poem! 🙂

  5. Vaughan Rapatahana Says:

    What is English language anyway?

    There is no international lingua franca that is English language – rather a series of regional nuances/varieties. All the more reason not to spend millions on hiring generally monolingual ‘native-speaker’ teachers of the language(s). There are far more non-native speakers of English(es) than ‘native’.

    There is Mainland Chinese English; Hong Kong English; Brunei Darussalam English and so on.

    I don’t read this poem as a critique of speakers of English in PR China, rather a gentle reflection on the inevitability of English language being differentiated/different/diverse…

    The question to be asked is WHY is there such a demand to have non-native speakers have English anyway?

    The answers, I believe, lie in the work of Pennycook and Phillipson, Canagarajah and Skutnabb-Kangas.

  6. t Says:

    From Ouyang:

    thanks for that, tammy. it’s well done.

  7. yamabuki Says:

    Chinese, English, and Japanese
    Are spoken at my house
    All mixed and muddled
    Are our words
    Pronouns and tenses
    Are wrongly spoken
    Bringing language down

    But more important
    Than broken lines
    Are the heartfelt words
    Strongly spoken
    To let each other know
    That we care
    And seek to share
    What’s in our hearts
    In our family way

    Bringing love
    We overlook
    Small mistakes
    Seeking understanding
    We learn to listen
    To hear between
    Our ‘broken’ words
    Those deep messages
    Of our heart and soul


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