牛仔是印第安人吗？ / Were Cowboys Indians?
典型的例子是一个早期的中国油田代表团出访美国，包括得克萨斯州和俄克拉荷马州。在俄州的塔尔萨，他们被带去参观吉尔克里斯特博物馆（Gilchrist Museum），那里主要收藏的是描绘美国西部荒蛮时代的美术作品，其中包括大量的由弗雷德里克•雷明顿（Frederick Remington）创作的美国牛仔和美洲土著印地安人的雕塑。
Were Cowboys Indians?
Travelers from China to other countries in the 1970s were mostly hand-picked specialists of one sort or another, and traveled mostly as groups of delegates. Outbound individual tourism – booming in recent years -- was still a prospect for the distant future at that time.
Whether doctors, academics, engineers, scientists, or officials, these groups would invariably be hosted by a counterpart organization in the destination country. The host organization would arrange part or all of the local agenda and itinerary.
These host organizations faced an array of daunting challenges, just as Chinese host organizations did when bringing groups of foreigners to China.
Accomodation, food and beverage, local transportation, cultural and entertainment activities, back-up arrangements like medical care in case someone got sick – these and other issues needed careful planning and liaison.
The liaison process was a lot more cumbersome in that pre-internet, pre-fax era when telex and telegram remained king and queen of international communications. Long distance telephony was also an option, but costs were very high and it often sounded as if the other party was speaking from inside some kind of echo chamber on a distant planet.
And then there was the invariable high hurdle of language. Good interpreters, especially those well-versed in English and Chinese, were scarce. If they needed linguistic competence in a specialized field such as medicine, petroleum, or construction, they were scarcer still.
So the usual solution to the language issue was to make the best of it in a spirit of compromise, while reminding speakers and listeners alike to go as slowly as possible, ask questions, and be patient.
Translation bloopers were commonplace, but even more common and sometimes more devastating was the absence of translation in places where it would have been very helpful.
There were almost always translators present in meetings and negotiations, whether or not they were numerous enough or fully qualified.
But what about the cultural and entertainment activities which plunged Chinese delegates into very unfamiliar environments? Background information on some of these was included in pre-trip briefing materials, but this was probably incomplete and somewhat superficial.
One classic example arose when an early delegation from China's oil patch visited the U.S., including Texas and Oklahoma. In Tulsa, Oklahoma they were taken to the Gilchrist Museum featuring a premier collection of fine art depicting America's wild west era, including a large collection of Frederick Remington sculptures of the American cowboy as well as the native Americans, or Indians.
On that particular day the group's museum tour had to be rushed due to some last-minute scheduling problems. Thus there was no time for the explanation of the relevant context of American history to be rendered to the group in Chinese.
Understandably the group left the museum impressed but somewhat confused.
One of them later approached a young Chinese-speaking American woman accompanying their group and asked: “Let me clarify one thing please. Were cowboys Indians?”
No doubt many Westerners have left Chinese museum or cultural site tours asking questions out of equal bafflement.
The Chinese visitor's question sounds quite ridiculous to someone familiar with American history, just as a westerner asking a Chinese person: "Were Manchus Han? " would.
Moral: when visiting historical and cultural sites in countries other than your own, make sure to have a good bi-lingual guide with you.