Friday, June 27, 2008

Memorized lines

Recently, I booked flights and hotels for my little sister and her friend who are coming to China next week. Though the travel service employee was technically speaking English, in reality I felt I was speaking with an automated phone service. A sample excerpt of our conversation...

"The check out time is 12:00. Would you like to make any other changes to your hotel reservation?"
"Yeah, actually I have a question. We need three beds so can we pay to have an extra bed pulled in or do we need to book another room?"
"I'm sorry. I don't understand."
"See, we have three adults so we need three beds. Can three people sleep in one room, and if so, will it cost more?"
"I'm sorry. I don't understand. Would you like to book another hotel reservation?"
"No, but we have three people, not two. Do we need another room or can we pay for an extra bed?"
"...[pause]...The check out time is 12:00. Would you like to make any other changes to your hotel reservation?"

It rather reminds me of how a couple weeks ago a stranger showed up at our door (claiming she "knows" me because I'd passed her in the neighborhood once before), practically inviting herself in while soliciting seemingly urgent assistance. After Kyle showed her in, plugged her zip drive into our computer and started translating and editing an enormous document for her, I started getting suspicious and inquired as to the nature of this document and what we had to do with it all. It turns out she needed to memorize numerous phrases in English in order to interview for a position with an Italian cruise liner. These English lines were supposedly responses to questions that she would be quizzed on, demonstrating her English fluency.

Suddenly there was an ethical dilemma-- not only was it dishonest for us to rewrite sentences that she would be claiming as her own into perfect English, but we would also be promoting the falsehood that she can speak English at all. Still, she kept insisting that her employer couldn't care less how fluent she is on the job as long as she can "pass off" the memorized dialogue. After all, my travel agent had clearly memorized the script, and that's all that was required of her.

Thus is much of the Asian world, so consumed by the perpetuation of favorable appearances that they sometimes don't even know who they really are underneath the layers of desperately maintained images. (But that's a topic for another post.)

And I guess in a country that is seeking with all social and economic and ethnocentric desperation to elevate its status in the world, English speakers are unconditionally in demand. And so I don't condemn either the cruise craving girl, the inept travel agent, or either employer that would endorse them. I can't assign the blame, but I feel I'm among the many who witness and experience the consequences.


liso. said...

ha! i'm not sure either, as it's not a dilemna I usually see both sides of. It's interesting to hear the back half of it, though!