Another Case Of Satire Lost In Translation… Or Is It? Netizens Slam The Beijinger Columnist George Ding

George Ding, the Beijinger’s backpage columnist, has provided us the latest example of why humor articles should never be translated. His recent column, “Why I’m Coming Back To China,” is an attempt at satire, and it wasn’t exactly well received by the Beijinger’s readers, some who didn’t get it (“Is George Ding thebeijinger’s racist-in-residence?”) and some who simply didn’t like it (“brilliant satire… for an LBH” [loser-back-home]).

But then it was punted across the cultural fence, posted to Caijing’s Sina Weibo, et al., and the vitriol has been multiplied. As sent in by a tipster this morning:

Caijing’s Weibo picked up on it and the reactions are not pretty, not pretty at all. Weibo also didn’t care to mention that George’s surname is Ding so of course the “white men are only here to take our women and jobs” reactions are all in evidence as well.

The Beijinger’s editors have noticed too. Seemingly overnight, the number of post views on Ding’s column jumped over 12,000, which is 12 times higher than the next highest non-Ding post. Iain Shaw writes:

The first bloggers who translated George’s piece into Chinese, Fei Xionghao (飞熊号) and Yao Hong’en (姚鸿恩), seem to have seen the humor. However, when Yao reposted his translation to web portal 163.com’s education channel, things started to get out of hand. Over 4,000 readers viewed the page, with over 200 comments posted, and many of those failing to realize that the “laowai loser” depicted in George’s piece was a fictional creation bearing no resemblance to George himself and – we really hope – little resemblance to any foreigner living in Beijing.

About that, though. Let’s look at Ding’s column. Read these sections without context, as if you were Chinese. Pretend you have no idea who George Ding is, or what he’s written before. Pretend you’re seeing it on a site — either 163’s education channel, Caijing, or the Beijinger — that is otherwise devoid of satire:

Another reason is that I couldn’t find a job worthy of my extensive resume. Most employers didn’t give a lick how much China experience I had, and those who did were surprised that I didn’t pick up Mandarin in the five years I spent in Beijing. As if a language made up of squiggles is that easy to learn. In the end, I couldn’t even get a job teaching English in the States, because apparently you need like a Ph.D or something.

And:

Honestly, I thought I’d feel more at home back home, but let’s just say that home wasn’t exactly where the heart is. In fact, being home is downright unbearable when your parents are constantly nagging you. When are you going to get a job? When are you going to move out of the basement? Did you take $40 from the cash drawer?

And:

If I’m being perfectly frank, I also missed not being the center of attention just because I was foreign. I hadn’t counted on the fact that going back to my home country meant that I was not going to be a foreigner at all.

Shaw, along with all of us, might wish there weren’t foreigners like this, but there absolutely are, and if you were being honest, you’d probably admit to knowing one or two of them. It’s a lousy type of laowai, for sure, and Ding — who I know personally — is absolutely not this type. But Chinese readers can hardly be blamed for getting upset at recognizing this characterization.

Ding’s mistake is not that he was joking, but that he didn’t take the joke far enough. In other words, he failed to accomplish the first aim of satire, to be “a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own,” according to Jonathan Swift. We do see “our own” metaphorical face in his column, and it’s ugly and not funny. Readers aren’t asked to take the next vital step of refuting that reflection, and unfortunate as it may be, the author will not be saved by throwing up his hands and proclaiming, “Satire, everyone!”

By the way, I can tell you Ding is a genuinely nice guy who deserves none of the ad hominem attacks on his person. I’m sure if he did it again, he’d use a pseudonym, as satirists — most notably Swift — usually do (a name like “Butcher McGraves” would have helped drive home the joke). Also, he was kind enough to email me his response:

I guess I’m astonished first of all. I wrote the first piece as a joke, poking fun at all the “Why I’m Leaving China” pieces. I wasn’t trying to antagonize anyone. I’m writing for Kitto’s former magazine and I’ve written for Charlie Custer as well. I thought mine was worth a chuckle and didn’t think anyone would care, but that blew up into a discussion of my identity without my input.

The second piece was kind of “doubling down.” I wanted to see just how far I could push satire and test the gullibility of people. Again I never thought it would become a big deal. I even told my editors, I don’t think this will be as popular because it’s like telling the same joke twice.

I am astonished and a bit disconcerted by the reaction. Okay, Chinese readers, I get that satire might get lost in translation. But come on people, have some skepticism. Am I really going to feel self-conscious when cars stop for me or steal money from my parents’ petty cash drawer?

But I guess that’s the nature of the Internet and the dubious honor of being a small center of attention on it. I’ve learned a lot from this experience (this is the most attention I’ve ever gotten for my writing and I anticipate it’s only downhill from here) so I guess my ultimate emotion is gratitude. I’m grateful to everyone who read it, no matter what reaction they had. I’m grateful to those that understood and enjoyed my humor. I’m grateful for those that rushed to my defense. But most of all, I’m grateful to my friends for knowing and believing in who I truly am.

He can take solace though: he’s in good company, on both the Chinese and Western side.

POSTSCRIPT: I also got in touch with China Daily Show. Its official reply:

I’m not surprised people are annoyed –  this story is nearly six months old. Oh I get it, it’s a joke about the ageing print-media news model.

12 Responses to “Another Case Of Satire Lost In Translation… Or Is It? Netizens Slam The Beijinger Columnist George Ding”

  1. Re: I sat

    The satire is lost even on those reading it in the original language so it’s not hard to imagine that all of it is lost when presented to a foreign audience. Especially since satire is much less apparent when it’s about people of a different background. Then it starts to look a lot more like bigotry or racism.

    Only because I was told it’s satire before did I manage to notice it. The article itself is comprised of exaggerated smaller and larger sins and lies that could easily be believed to be true. Some might deem calling a kennel part of the supply chain of Chinese restaurants satire, but for people back in the west it may as well be seen as a long-hidden truth to their gossip and reason to become more disgruntled.

    While there is no explicit reference to the character being described as a non-Asian foreigner, the few close calls do lean in that direction. (“…missed not being the center of attention just because I was foreign.” as well as “a language made up of squiggles”.) With articles that could easily be misconstrued as real ramblings, whatever backlash there may be, Ding doesn’t have to worry as he is not part of the foreigners who are easily recognizable in the street. Throwing rocks at people who live in glass houses, claiming you’re one of them as well so it’s fair, while actually your glass is bullet-proof.

    However, I wouldn’t go as far as call Ding a racist. He’s just not a very good writer and his attempt at satire ended up as failed whiteface comedy.

    Reply
      • Re: I sat

        Haha. No, I just had never heard of George Ding. I had heard of the whole “I’m leaving China” blogging phenomenon so initially I was expecting another lame-ass article about someone feeling like he has to explain his departure. I can definitely see why the satire was lost on people. And I think Beijingcream is right on the money that it wasn’t taken far enough. I mean, even blogs about leaving China had better comments satirizing the original post.

        Although to be fair pushing it too far might have made it inappropriate for the magazine. Not sure if that’s Ding’s fault or not.

        Reply
    • Michael

      “While there is no explicit reference to the character being described as a non-Asian foreigner, the few close calls do lean in that direction. ”

      On ChinaSmack (I believe) it wasn’t even mentioned that George was Asian (or that his last name was Ding). It was meant to somehow confuse people into thinking Mark Kitto and Charlie Custer (real White Devils who packed their bags) had gone home, failed, then come back to China to look for a job. This is not what happened. George’s piece is fiction… so .. yea.

      Once you realize that George Ding is his name, and he is ethnically Chinese, the joke goes nowhere…apart from lining up a list of ‘anti-laowai’ myths about what white guys are doing in China ( I know, crazy right? Working in another country? What’s next, flying cars?)

      By the way, when 90% of your audience is non-Asian, and you do a hit-piece on foreigners, don’t expect a raucous applause. I know. I know. It was meant to be funny. All 6 Chinese guys laughed their asses off.

      BTW. If you think being stared at, glared at everywhere you go is a ‘good thing’, you have no idea what it’s like to be a 洋鬼子 in China. 90% of the time its annoying as hell, and often antagonistic. Being treated like an ‘outsider’ 90% of the time is not a reason to come back to China, it’s a reason to get the hell out.

      Reply
  2. Umm.. ew.

    George Ding is a horrible “writer” read any of his posts on The Beijinger to get that awkward feeling of someone trying to do satire but failing miserably.

    The first poster put this well:

    “With articles that could easily be misconstrued as real ramblings, whatever backlash there may be, Ding doesn’t have to worry as he is not part of the foreigners who are easily recognizable in the street. Throwing rocks at people who live in glass houses, claiming you’re one of them as well so it’s fair, while actually your glass is bullet-proof.”

    If I (a white man) wrote a “satire” article pretending to be a back man and threw in a bunch of unflattering stereotypes would it still be ok? You are Chinese, George Ding, your articles aren’t funny, they are just tired stereotypes rehashed by a weak writer who sits on both sides of the laowai/Chinese fence depending on which one is “hipper” or safer.

    Reply
    • Mark

      Wow, thanks for diminishing all the struggles that Asian or Asian-American foreigners in China have to go through. The fact that you all assume the article leans towards a non-Asian perspective show’s the inherent bias in your opinion. Asians are an extremely diverse group and can inhabit the same stereotypical laowai behavior as any other race. The fact that someone could even use the term “whiteface” without a trace of irony is shocking. But I guess it really is tough for white people out here, with or without the George Ding’s of the world keeping them down…

      Reply
      • Re: I sat

        Pointing at one thing doesn’t necessarily refute problems that Asian-Americans might have. And of course, certainly behavior can give you away but the easiest targets at times of foreign hatred are whites and blacks. That’s why I find it a little disappointing Ding hides behind the argument he’s in the same boat, when his article is met with an online outburst of racism. Let’s face it, drop Eminem in LA 1992 and he is going to have a tough time. No amount of silly hats is going to change that.

        Just a note here, I certainly don’t believe Ding intended any of this. It’s just that in the long run it’s not really his ass on the line when reason is lost on those who just like to see what suits their views. The negative view of foreigners is already strong enough and it’s not like hate crimes don’t happen in China. And lest we forget, anti-Japanese sentiment and consequent attacks show that mob mentality lingers on.

        Reply
  3. John

    Both of George’s works on this topic were very enjoyable. I feel sorry for those that wasted so much emotion when they failed to ‘get it.’

    Reply
    • Dingleberries

      Whenever George writes one of his little “satires” and it blows up in his face, he runs around waving the satire flag, and gets his friends and housemates to post comments defending brave George, chuckling how the haters just don’ get it.

      Well, I “get” it but I just don’t think it very funny.

      Take George’s guide to “surviving” the floods this summer. As usual, it appeared weeks after, with all the freshness of month-old durian, and it mocked motorists and pedestrians for their inadequate response. Yo, George, nearly 100 drowned that night. Geddit? No? But it’s satire!! The ‘leaving China’ column duly appeared just after that entire meme had shark-jumped into the ether.

      So, to me the “racism” angle is a total sideshow. The problem is that George fancies himself a wit and The Beijinger is a glossy piece of paper that advertisers use to wipe their behinds – the two are perfectly suited. George’s self-censored “satire” gets rave reviews from his housemates on the site, so long as it doesn’t ventures into the greater Internet, which always rains a golden shower on George’s parade. Am I the only one who’s actually wished Kaiser Kuo was back writing his knackered old column, sometimes? Hen, just kidding.

      Reply
      • King Baeksu

        The fact that he had to mention in the comments section of his “Why I’m Leaving China” column that it was really just “satire” was a pussy move, and indicates that he lacks the testicular fortitude of all great satirists.

        The whole point of satire is to have shit blow up in your face, and thereby expose the stupidity and prejudices of others. Otherwise, why bother?

        Satirists who out themselves are shanzhai satirists, and not the real thing.

        Reply

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