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S2, Ep 4 Betrayed: Fire Chicken

betrayed beijing, china, christmas 1984 a barely credible cross-cultural story

Episode 4 of Betrayed: a tale of Christmas spiritual pollution, Series 2 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News‘ podcast

Calum & Robert’s Peculiar Mission To Save Christmas is betrayed

Series 3, Episode 4 Betrayed – Fire Chicken

The second series of our podcast The Truth Lies In Bedtime Stories takes place over 30 minutes or so on the morning of December 25th 1984, in Beijing.

For best results, start from Episode 1 – The Staircase

In Episode 4, we discover the peculiar nature of Calum and Robert’s Mission To Save Christmas.

Next: Episode 5: Clock & Elvis

If you enjoyed this series, please share it with others, and try our other stories.

Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter

Audio Production by Samuel Wain

Betrayed is a podcast by The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News.

See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.

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Series 3, Episode 4: Fire Chicken

When Jenny and Valérie first started talking turkey, not only did neither of them have the first clue where to find one, they hadn’t even known how to say ‘turkey’ in Chinese.  

They consulted the Chinese oracle,but it had turned out that not even Wim knew the Chinese word for turkey.  

They’d all turned to him, sitting on the bed. Wim’s mouth had opened confidently, but then remained open. His eyes had begun inspecting the corners of the ceiling, in search of the answer. 

He had the air of a designated driver, in front of a group of shivering friends, patting his pockets in search of the key he knew he’d put somewhere. Or a priest at a critical meeting with the bishop, discovering an unexpected hole in his cassock.  

As Wim’s Chinese seemed, to Calum and Robert, to be better than that of most native speakers, his admission that he’d never actually come across the word, or couldn’t remember ever having had to use it, had made them question the wisdom of their Mission to Save Christmas. 

Wim  held up a finger, sprang up from the bed, and disappeared from the room. 

While they awaited his return, Robert made his inevitable quip about a wild turkey chase.  

Wim returned triumphant, a chunky English-Chinese dictionary in his hand. When showing them the entry for Turkey, he stood unnecessarily close to Valerie, and somehow contrived to insert Jenny between the open dictionary and his index finger.

It had been at this point that Robert had asked about the possibility of buying a turkey in Beijing on a December 25th morning.

Wim mentioned this meat market, and before long Robert had declared his Mission to Save Christmas under way, and requested volunteers to join him.

Robert’s invitation was not greeted with general enthusiasm. The dormitory was relatively warm, and one of the bottles of Mongolian vodka was already empty.

Wim the economist, ran the numbers.

He calculated the marginal future benefit of successfully executing the plan against its low probability of success. He factored in the sunk benefit of having already provided the mission-critical intelligence. He conducted a cost-benefit analysis.

He said he’d stay and help Jenny and Valerie peel the potatoes.  

Calum, however, quickly offered to join what by now Robert was calling the ‘Turkish Expeditionary Force’. 

As they shrugged on their padded cotton greatcoats, and located their hats, gloves and scarves, Calum and Robert strategised.

They debated whether the Chinese had any common point of reference with which they could communicate the object of their Christmas mercy mission. They compared turkey impersonations.

Robert grabbed a scrap of coloured paper from the Frankentree, and started asking Wim for critical vocabulary, and directions to the meat market.

And now Robert and Calum were once again consulting this scrap of paper, at the foot of the four-story-high chimney.  

They ignored the assistance of a group of schoolboys with red scarves, who’d formed an audience the moment they’d stopped.

The tallest schoolboy suddenly pointed at the first two characters Robert had written at the top of the piece of paper. He read them out in a loud voice, setting off his friends, and everyone else within earshot, into paroxysms of glee.  Even the egg-seller across the road started laughing.

Calum and Robert joined in, repeating the two characters, before resuming their purposeful walk. 

‘Huǒ jī, Huǒ jī, Huǒ jī’, they incanted, left-right, left-right, their footsteps gradually synchronising.

‘What were the characters again?’ asked Calum.

‘Huǒ’ as in ‘fire’, ‘jī’ as in ‘chicken’, replied Robert, still smiling. ‘Fire chicken’ – I’ll never think of a turkey any other way’.

Calum smiled beneath his scarf. His classmates, friends, and family back home in Kirkaldy had all been baffled when he’d told them he was going to study Chinese. 

He told Robert he intended to add Fire Chicken to the list of translations for his next letter home, part of his effort to get them to understand. 

In that morning’s letter, he told Robert, he’d included the wonderfully poetic Chinese word for ‘movie’, ‘dianying’, made up of the characters meaning ‘Electric’ and ‘Shadows’. 

‘Don’t forget that brilliant translation for Coca-Cola’, said Robert.  Bottles of Coke were now available at Beijing’s fancier hotels for the first time since Liberation.  ‘Kekoukele’ read the four characters, written in white on a red background on the bottles –  ‘tasty and delightful’.  

Wim The Omniscient had told them Coke’s first effort at transliteration back in the 1920s had used the characters for ‘bite the wax tadpole’.  They too were pronounced ‘keloukele’ but, as Robert had remarked, delivered a subtly different marketing punch. 

Calum tried to imagine his friends back home kacking themsevles as hard as he had when Robert had said this, but pictured only blank faces. 

Being British teenagers in China in 1984 was a powerful bonding experience in itself, but in their three months together there, Calum, Robert and their Edinburgh classmates had developed their own impenetrable slang.

It was all based on the limitless potential for humiliation and misunderstanding provided by getting your tones wrong in Chinese.

Deng yi xia’ means ‘wait a moment’.

Deng yi xia’ means ‘bench a shrimp’.

They soon started to substitute English mis translations of their Chinese mispronunciations into their daily speech.

This became a secret code that rendered their conversations almost entirely inpenetrable to any native English speaker who hadn’t shared their experience.

‘Just bench a shrimp, will you?’, they’d peevishly reply to anyone urging them to get a move on.  Or, before long, ‘Jeez, substitute a crustacean, won’t  you, for God’s sake’.   

They’d sometimes forget the origins of their own extended gags, confusing even themselves. 

No wonder the Chinese stared at them all the time, if they kept telling them to bench shrimps.  And that’s not even taking into account their gradual realisation of their huge cross-cultural gaffes. 

For their first few weeks, before the weather turned too cold, many of them had worn light cotton tracksuits they’d found in the People’s Number Five Department store.  

The tracksuit counter was just next to the place they’d bought those magnificent padded silk dressing gowns, one floor up from the counter that sold the square pink toilet paper, sold by weight.

Their gradually improving Chinese, plus some straight talking from some of the older hands, like Wim, had recently revealed the terrible truth to them.

Those weren’t light cotton tracksuits they went jogging in, but underwear.

And those padded silk dressing gowns were actually funeral shrouds for dressing corpses.

And that pink toilet paper, which so amused them to buy by the kilo, were, in fact, sanitary towels.

Calum hadn’t written home about all of this stuff.  He was starting to wonder if anyone back home would have the first idea of what he was now experiencing.  Or find any of it as amusing as he and Robert did whenever they blew their noses with pink tissue paper.

Oh well, thought Calum.  That’s probably why his old schoolfriends were still in Kirkaldy, and he was now in China, hunting for fire chickens on a crisp, dry Christmas morning, where it was just a day like any other.

In Part 5, Clock and Elvis, we find out what happened when Calum and Robert had a proper conversation with some Chinese.