Trans-Cultural Yuppieism and the Big Gulp

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Ikea in China — on weekends, especially, it’s like a theme park (FurnitureLand?) where people flop around on the demo units, test out lamps by flicking them on and off repeatedly, and blow off steam by waiting in half-hour lines for two-kuai hotdogs.

In China, Ikea also continues its tradition of presenting its furniture with pseudo-Swedish names. You know, the one that’s resulted in much unintentional hilarity for US customers: JERKER? LOL AMIRITE?
In China, though, it presents the incomprehensible names in two scripts — the Roman alphabet (in good clean Scandinavian sans-serif fonts, all capitalized) and Chinese characters. A couple of weekends ago my girlfriend and I went to pick up some sorely needed furniture for our new apartment: two 格尔姆 and three 毕利, or two GORMs and three BILLYs, or (as we say in the English) two storage shelves and three bookcases.

Unrelated to Ikea but also faintly annoying is the Starbucks policy of redefining cup sizes. People in the US have been ranting about the tall/grande/venti system for years, but here in China it was always a reliable 小杯 (“small cup”) /中杯 (“medium cup”) /大杯 (“large cup”) (at least, in my experience) until late last year, when suddenly Starbucks staff began interpreting “大杯” as “medium” (or “Grande,” I guess). To get a large, you have to ask for a 最大杯 (“biggest cup”), as in the attached photo.

Seriously, I am not even joking.

And now that I’ve said that a “Large” (or “Grande,” if we must) is a 最大杯, which is what I’ve heard people saying, I would point out that on the sign it says 超大杯 (“super-big cup”).

This is actually much more interesting: “Venti,” to the monoglot English ear, sounds classy — maybe it means “Danger,” maybe it means “A man who likes his coffee — and the laaaaadies.” Afternoons on the piazza (never mind which piazza); evenings at the casino, dinners at the tavolino. (It doesn’t; it means “twenty.”) But the Chinese “超大杯” — “super-big cup” — is very much the opposite: rather than being classy, or pseudo-Eurotrash-mysterious, it sounds (to my admittedly non-native ear) quite a lot like the 7-11 “Big Gulp.”

A few years ago, I was visiting Macau, where I am able to more-or-less read but not speak the local languages — Portuguese by way of high school Spanish; Cantonese by way of Mandarin. I’d been walking around all morning and was just looping back by way of Largo do Senado, the lovely Portuguese-style square at the center of the old city, when I passed a Starbucks and decided that it was probably time to caffeinate.

My Cantonese was and is basically nonexistent, but I figured I could probably muster up enough to order a coffee by using the Cantonese readings of the Mandarin words. So I asked for “Yat dai bui dong yat kafei m’goi,” and the barista looked at me blankly.

Fine, I thought. Mandarin, then. So I asked for “Yī dà bēi dāngrì kāfēi, xièxie.” Again, a blank look from the barista. I tried again in English: “Can I have a large coffee of the day, please?”

“Oh,” said the barista in more or less unaccented American English. “You mean a venti.”

Comments (15)

  1. Bob Page wrote::

    At a Starbucks in Dallas a barista once asked me what flavor I wanted. “Coffee, please,” I said.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 10:38 am #
  2. Aaron wrote::

    I myself am always chagrined by the “cup size inflation” and silly naming typified by the Starbucks “venti,” but I should point out the following: while it looks ridiculous to see the 中杯,大杯,超大杯 trio out of context, the (purposely hidden) truth is that the “short” (小杯) size still exists and is available should you order it (at least here in Japan it is). They simply hide it from most displays in order to upsell you to the tall.

    The interesting thing here, I think, is that the English names of the sizes are sufficiently obfuscated with marketing-speak that one might not notice the absence of “short” without prior knowledge of its existence. The Chinese names, however, are too simple and to-the-point; the lack of a 小杯 is glaring (and of course 超大杯 is an inelegant, ham-fisted sort of translation).

    In conclusion, Starbucks needs to hire better marketing droids for their Chinese operations.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 10:44 am #
  3. Lucas wrote::

    I think at one point a Sinophone marketing team at Starbucks must have decided that their audience wasn’t sophisticated enough for names like 矮杯 (short), 高杯 (tall), or 宏杯 (grande, or venti, or whatever. I just made that up… what do you think?), and so they end up with size-names like “Big Gulp” or “Super-size,” signifying that paradox of Chinese belated postmodernity, the unsophisticated yuppie–smug, but never quite smug enough.

    In related news, in Montreal, where law stipulates that neither French nor English can have precedence over the other, Starbucks can sell “grande” or “venti” sizes, but “tall” has to be re-marketed as the Italian “mezzo.” Which, of course, also means not very good.


    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 11:00 am #
  4. Alai wrote::

    I loathe Starbuck’s with a passion, but the last time that I did go to one (in Kowloon Bay late last autumn), the cashier did understand what a “yit kafei siu bui” (熱咖啡小杯) was. Should I go the next time, I’m going to be tempted to just ask for a Big Gulp sized cup of coffee. :P

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm #
  5. michael wrote::

    Where’s that Forbidden City Starbucks when you need it? Good times, man, good times…

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm #
  6. eric wrote::

    In Taiwan, it’s a 特大杯, according to Starbucks’ website. This avoids the immature 超. Now I’m interested to know what most people actually say.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 9:31 pm #
  7. John Pasden wrote::

    Good to see you bringing up the 超大杯 issue. I just ran into this whole thing myself recently. It’s funny, because I was ordering the 大杯 thinking it was the largest, meaning I was unintentionally downselling my own purchase. Then I was confused because I saw the highest price, and I was being charged something lower. It was then that I was informed that what I really wanted was the 超大杯. D’oh!

    I love the Big Gulp comparison, though.

    Friday, May 13, 2011 at 12:21 am #
  8. Hah, love it!

    Regarding IKEA/Swedish names, does IKEA in Beijing offer MOSES chair? We have one, where we constantly put our bums on top of the old prophet! It hasn’t caused an uproar in the US, at least not yet…

    Lately I’ve been thinking of creating a new Chinese slang for “good”: 胸罩, because “bra” is “good” in Swedish!

    Friday, May 13, 2011 at 10:25 am #
  9. Mark wrote::

    For once, I’m happy being too poor for the likes of places like Starbucks.

    I hadn’t realized Cantonese was a primary language in Macau, though. I’ve gotta put my 10 hours of Pimsleur I did prior to my HK trip to use again!

    Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 4:49 am #
  10. Wei wrote::

    It’s ironic to read these comments or whatever complaints here cause basically you guys are creating these brands or products and making a huge profit from China. And now you are unhappy about the interpreting. Take it or leave it…

    Friday, June 24, 2011 at 11:44 pm #
  11. Wukailong wrote::

    The Starbucks sizes have been getting on my nerves too. I used to ask for 中杯 expecting to get a “tall” cup but now I will get a “grande” instead. One day I thought I should just switch to asking for a 小杯 instead. Then they wanted to give me some super-small variety! In the end, I figured it was easier to just say I want the “15 kuai cup” and then I always get the right size.

    “Pseudo-Swedish” names? :) In all their silliness, they’re actually real names, but I can’t stop myself from flinching at them at times. They should translate them into proper Chinese ones to give the customers the feel for that Scandinavian paternalism, like “Duktig” (好孩子) or “Flit” (用功)…

    Monday, June 27, 2011 at 11:42 am #
  12. GAC wrote::

    I found in Hong Kong it was best to start with English (not knowing enough Cantonese to try the bastardized attempt you made). Unfortunately, it did not work on a bus driver when I got on the wrong bus, and he didnꞌt speak Mandarin, either.

    Monday, July 11, 2011 at 11:56 am #
  13. XiaoXiong wrote::

    I also get very annoyed about the marketing related cup shapes & sizes at big coffee chains, however I’m not convinced by your comparison

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 11:37 pm #
  14. XiaoXiong wrote::

    by your opinion that ‘chao’ is not very classy. Yes literally it can sound a bit silly the super cup or big gulp. However chao is often used in situations where we might not think to use ‘super’ in english, the obvious example being the english premier league. ‘Ying chao lian sai’ (sorry not on own computer, no chinese). I think your thinking is to english perhaps.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 11:40 pm #
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    Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 11:43 am #