I asked a friend to read over a part of a paper for class. She got into the first section, and then I saw her eyebrows shoot up as if she was reading a pop-up book about male anatomy.
“What is this?!” she said.
I looked over her shoulder, and saw, in very clear Chinese characters: “The penguin escaped from the household in search of sexual independence.”
“What penguin??” she said, beginning to laugh.
See, it’s an honest mistake. The character input for ‘penguin’ and ‘concubine’ is very similar. Penguin (企鹅 qi’e) and concubine (妾 qie). See? Easy mistake. (Still, it’s fun to imagine a sexually-liberated penguin running from a Qing Dynasty household. I imagine a Charlie Chaplin-style waddle down the path with a Daoist priest in tow).
Believe it or not, these problems happen more than you’d think. I once mistook the poet Homer for a Hippo God because a) it was an awesome image, and b) they are pronounced the same and I got confused. (And I spent an hour in class fuming about how I’d never been taught about Hippo God in my own American schooling). Another time, I thought a teacher was talking about the Samba, when really he was talking about a scar on a character’s leg. Best of all was when a classmate was complaining about all of the things his girlfriend could fit in her purse, including what sounded like “a whole turkey” when really he was saying “a lighter.”
It’s good for a laugh, which I’ve learned to do often. A friend told me that you have to learn to love losing face to make it in the world. I think that’s true. (Or, at least I hope it is, considering that I do it so much.) Every time I open my mouth, it’s a gamble whether or not I’ll say something coherent.
But to try is to dance with failure, and to stay light on your feet as the tempo picks up.
So yes, I may have created a sexually-charged-penguin monstrosity, but it’s all part of the learning process.
Or so I tell myself as I go back and edit that penguin out of my essay.