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Peggi Lepage's Rebecca Dunham

Rebecca Dunham

November 21, 2021

Being a Canadian model abroad presents challenges that I didn't expect. There are many moments that I feel completely lost in translation, not just with Chinese people but also with the other models. The majority of the models come from Brazil, Russia or the Ukraine and not all of them can speak English. Between models, the universal language is English. Unfortunately, some of the models that can't speak English well use "Model English". Model English is bits and pieces of the language that they have picked up. Often it isn't even close to being grammatically correct or coherent to a native English speaker.

Being a native English speaker actually puts you at a disadvantage sometimes, as you are a translator between models and bookers. People are often intimidated by you because they feel that their English is too bad to speak with you. The worst part is that most of the models have a common language between each other, which you don't share because there are so few native English speakers. The casting van is filled with Russian and Portuguese models and I often sit there wishing I knew what they were talking about.

Of course, being a native English speaker has its obvious advantages as well. Everyone is trying to learn a language that I already know and most of the Chinese people we work with know more English than the Russians or Portuguese.

Most of my embarrassing and frustrating moments here in Beijing have been because of the language barrier. For example, I had to color my hair recently. I had put it off for weeks but the fade from brown to red was becoming too much to handle. Choosing a hair salon was another challenge - I wasn't expecting to find someone who spoke English but rather a salon that used products that I was familiar with. The decision ended up being one of convenience. I had walked all the way to my choice salon, only to find that I didn't have my cell phone with me. The weather was pretty cold that day, so after walking home I just walked into the salon that was in my building complex. Faced with a team of all male hairstylists, staring at me in confusion, I called my booker who seemed equally confused. I explained to her that I was standing in a hair salon hoping to have my roots touched up and asked her politely to please tell the stylist to show me some color swatches. She was totally baffled, "wait... you mean your hair is not natural? Why do you colour it?" I tried to explain that my hair is naturally a tone of red but I color it to keep it more vibrant. My booker could not get passed the idea that my hair color wasn't natural. She continued to bombard me with questions about what my natural hair colour was. Finally I got her to talk to one of the hairstylists and explain that I wanted to colour my hair. Already flustered, I was then showed multiple books of different hair colors; all variations of red. All of the stylists stopped what they were doing to crowd around and consult with each other after they showed me each book. For each book they showed me, I picked one colour swatch, pointed and said "jigga" the mandarin word for "this". Each colour swatch was slightly different with every book they showed me but I tried to keep the colour I chose consistent.

After the fifth book and a lot of debating with each other, I was ushered into a chair completely unsure of what colour they were mixing behind me. The lead hairstylist finally emerged in a quite mysterious way; he was clearly taking over the task of colouring my hair. He looked a lot like Edward Scissorhands, with big black hair that was curled and tossed around, and an all black outfit with a barber cut jacket. Throughout the salon experience, I was ushered from chair to sink, had pieces of hair inspected to see the colour and had countless people come up behind me and start talking about me and I assume my hair - other customers included.

It wasn't only being unable to tell the hairdresser what I wanted that made my salon experience so different than one in Canada, but also not being able to read magazines or gossip with the hairdresser that made the experience so surreal. I literally sat the entire time starring in the mirror and watching the staff work their magic. For me, it was an entirely silent period except for the conversations around me and of course the Chinese pop music playing softly in the background. The silence was more intense than it sounds; I was paralyzed by my own inability to understand the noises around me or to participate in them. In the end, my hair was a much brighter red than it has ever been in the past. It was not my usual auburn, but I like it this color and I now I have new Chinese friends who are also my neighbours.

I have experienced many lost-in-translation moments in castings and jobs as well. During my first week here, I had a lot of catalogue castings where I was often told to show them my best big pose. Having no idea what a big pose was, I often would just put my hands on my hips and smile. I learned later that a big pose is a fashion pose, often involving putting your hands close to your face. They were also telling me to open my eyes and smile, but the first few times I heard this it sounded more like "open your ass and smell." The first time I looked around confused and just decided to ignore it, but the second time I burst out laughing not knowing what else to do. Another model had to explain to me what they were saying.

A friend of mine was at a runway casting when the client first told him to smile, but he heard smell, so he did his runway walk exaggerating a smelling motion!

The most challenging and exciting part of being lost in translation is often being an English example. People are always going to use the things that you say and the way you say them as a model for their own English. Some people will use you as a resource to expand their knowledge of the language. This aspect is one that I almost always forget about, but has led to some ridiculous moments. One of the male models with my agency constantly uses me to expand his vocabulary. Recently while driving to castings I said "screw this" which started an entire conversation with him about the context of how to use the word screw in a sentence. This was followed by a sea of examples: screw you, screw this, I'm going to screw her/him and of course you know the rest.

I've also had similar moments at jobs. At every fashion show you have a dresser with you backstage giving you the next outfit, helping you to dress and undress quickly and make sure that your outfit is perfect before going on stage. At this show I wore boots and I had to keep taking them off to change pants. This became time consuming and was a very unsteady process. I had to stand in the same manner as a flamingo would with one pant leg on and the other around my ankle, often with one boot on and the other off. My dresser was trying her best to help me through this process, acting as something I could lean on and use to balance myself. Finally I was only wearing dresses but then she showed me a pair of pants again! I exhaled and said "fuck," while I proceeded to unzip the boots. The dresser said something to one of her fellow dressers in Chinese and then looked at me smiling and said, "fuck." My mouth dropped open but I didn't have any words in Chinese to tell her that she shouldn't say that; there was no way to correct her or my own mistake. I felt so guilty and wanted to laugh at the same time. Of all the words I could teach this lovely woman who had been helping me all evening, I taught her "fuck."

At first it's really terrifying being confronted with this total lack of control but I've learned to embrace it and within this lack of control there are ways that I have been empowered. I've become an asset rather than having to just be brave and throwing caution to the wind. Yes, I have no control in certain situations but once I understood and accepted it, being in China has opened up all these new fun hilarities and allowed me to experience the country and the culture in a whole new way. Being lost in translation has become something that I no longer fear but embrace and even enjoy.


Rebecca is a Peggi Lepage model, with Unique in Beijing.

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