A new cafe with an attention grabbing name just opened in Xiamen. An obtuse marketing ploy or lost in translation?
It is always a risk using a language that you are not fully familiar with. It is a much larger risk when businesses and even governments do this in public settings. The ways that societies mold and adapt languages are complex, and words often mean or imply things that are far different than their formal dictionary meanings. What this means for the traveler is a world of ill-used foreign words donning clothing, street signs, businesses, store fronts, etc . . . which sometimes have the potential to be good for the occasional chuckle. To these ends, Vagabond Journey has started this new series to collect specimens of that which have been lost in translation.
I was walking near the beach in Xiamen, and something caught my eye. It was a sting of letters that were posted on the signboard of a new shop that was down a little alley, half hidden in a nondescript, half-developed part of the neighborhood. The letters were P-U-S-S-
Such letters arranged in such an order naturally catches the attention of a native Anglo speaker, and it drew me to an immediate halt so I could take a little closer. Could that really say . . . The last letter was obscured beyond a pillar, so I took a couple of steps towards the intrigue to get a complete view.
Yes, the final letter was a “Y.”
Of course, a cat was the cafe’s logo.
Though in big letters the cafe had its prime keyword written all over it more than a dozen times. It seemed excessive and perhaps intentional. I began to wonder if this wasn’t merely the usual accidental use by a Chinese business of an English word that has an unknown meaning or innuendo. I went in for a drink.
As I sat there drinking a cheap cup of rancid coffee I had to wonder if the staff was aware of the various other meanings of the name of their cafe. I debated the matter, vacillating from “they have no idea” to “maybe this is some obtuse form of marketing?”
As I sat there an American rap song came on over the cafe’s speakers. It was about a gentleman who enjoys “fucking bitches three ways” and “hittin’ dat pussy real good.” As the cafe’s token word was repeated over and over in the song I had to question whether this was mere coincidence.
So I walked into the main area of the cafe and attracted the attention of two young workers and the owner. I held my cup of coffee that had the cafe’s name written on it up before them, pointed to it, and then hesitated. Could I just tell them that the most common usage of the word they’d chosen to name their cafe after is to crudely reference the business part of a female’s reproductive region? As I momentarily blundered I realized that I’d already committed, so I laid it out bare.
“Do you know that the meaning of this English word is vagina?” I asked in Chinese.
The way the young man in front of me quivered and snapped his head down immediately after I spoke the vital word meant that I’d adequately driven my point home. So I continued. “Did you know that this word had two meanings, and one is vagina?” I asked again.
The young guy quickly nodded fast, not raising his eyes away from his shoes. Though I’m not sure if he was nodding in conscious affirmation or just as an expedient way to get the strange man standing in front of him asking questions about vaginae to go away.
So I looked at the young girl. She just had a blank look on her face. She was either dumbstruck or just dumb. I couldn’t tell.
But the owner was cackling. She was laughing big, rapidly bobbing her head up and down like an enraptured iguana.
“Xiaomaomi mao, xiaomaomi mao,” she kept saying while laughing and pointing to the word on my cup. In an odd way, she seemed to have been agreeing with, rather than refuting, my statement. Though non-verbal communication and, especially, laughter in China tends to be far more difficult to decode than the language.
“Xiaomao” is how to say kitten, so I just figured that she was saying that the cafe was named after a cat. Obviously.
Though something about the way she kept saying this phrase made me curious about the mi part of the word.
So I consulted fellow Vagabond Journey writer, Mitch Blatt.
Mitch looked into it and discovered that the English translation in Baidu for maomi was, you guessed it, pus.sy.
“猫咪 Pussy is a child’s word for a cat,” it said.
End of story, the name of a cafe was a linguistic blunder, a classic case of something being lost in translation. Haha. Giggle. Laugh. Case closed.
Or so we thought.
A little later on Mitch uncovered a recently published passage on the Chinese social media portal Tianya that said:
“. . . 我们不吃猫，我们吃小猫咪.”
“I used to think that Chinese people liked to eat dogs and rats because the culture is different, but why do you eat cats?”
“. . . We don’t eat cats, we eat pus.sies.”
There is then an explanation that this is a vulgar pun in English.
So there is a consciousness of the duel meaning of the name of the cafe in question. Whether the owner knows this or is sublimely innocent is still up for speculation. Like so, as of now it is inconclusive if Xiamen’s Pus*y Cafe is lost in translation or just plain lost.
The next time I walked by the Pussy Cafe it had undergone a big change. Although it was merely a substitution of a single letter the result was a major overhaul of meaning. An “A” had been substituted for the “U.” Perhaps management grew tired of know it all English speakers telling them that they’d named their cafe after a private part — or, as a friend pointed out, maybe it was a recoiling at the thought of the scents that would soon be wafting over from the nearby street food vendors grilling up seafood in the heat of summer.