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  Beijing Scene


Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 5, November 12 - 18

You Say Potato (malingshu 马铃薯), I say Potato (tudou) !

After 5000 years of history, it is no surprise that many Chinese people have become pretty set in their ways. Certain habits and customs that laowai 老外 (barbarians) bring with them to the Middle Kingdom are sometimes misunderstood or even feared. On the other hand, certain Chinese customs and habits seem to be just beyond the grasp of many foreigners. Things that seem fairly normal from the Western guandian 观点(point of view) may be perceived very differently by the Chinese, and these differences in perception are often reflected in language.

For example, what foreigners consider "healthy," Chinese people might consider feipangzheng —肥胖症 (obesity). What is, in the West, a "beauty mark" is called zhi in Chinese, is written with a sickness radical and is looked upon as anything but beautiful. Deodorant (fanghanye 防旱液) isn't sold in Chinese stores because huchou 狐臭 (body odor) is a foreign ailment (although most cab drivers chuzuche siji 出租车司机 seem to be suffering from it just the same!) Also, being that foreigners haven't quite finished jinhua 进化 (evolving) yet, they're much hairier than most Chinese people. While hairy legs and armpits are considered normal in the West, they are seen as a medical condition in China. There's even a term for it: (lit. "too much hair disease" duomaozheng 多毛症 ). Unfortunately there's no cure, but the symptoms can be treated with a razor.

Being a zuopiezi 左撇子 (lefty) isn't something that needs "correcting" in the West. But in China, parents use the word jiuzheng 纠正(lit. "put right") when talking about forcing their left-handed children to use their right hands. This is done not only because using the left hand is simply bu fangbian 不方便 (inconvenient), but also because hanzi 汉字 (Chinese characters) couldn't possibly be written with the left hand. Chopsticks too are supposedly only suited for righties. That's why if you write Chinese or use chopsticks with your left hand everybody thinks you're a tiancai 天才(genius).

The Chinese word for the offspring of parents of different races is hunxueer 混血儿(lit. "mixed blood"). This word is used quite liberally in China, and can describe the offspring of Italian and Iranian parents just as readily as it can describe the children of a Mexican and African couple. The word, however, does not apply to children of two PRC parents, even if one is from Inner Mongolia and the other is from Xinjiang. Hunxue'er are supposedly congming 聪明 (smart) because of their mixed blood. They're as smart as lefties, but they're not as smart as youtairen 犹太人(Jews). Left-handed Mixed Bloods are as smart as Jews. Jewish lefties are smarter than left-handed Mixed Bloods, but aren't as smart as Jewish left-handed Mixed Bloods, who are among the smartest people on Earth.

Words like hua (slang for flirtatious, short for huahuagongzi 花花公子 or "playboy") and seqing 色情(perverted) are often ascribed to foreigners who are just a little too kaifang 开放 (open-minded) by Chinese standards. On the other hand, leather miniskirts, thigh-high stockings and high-heeled leather boots don't necessarily imply that the wearer is suibian 随便 (loose).

The words kaifang 开放(open-minded) and baoshou 保守 (conservative) mean different things to different people. Westerners consider a kiss hello or goodbye between friends of the opposite sex perfectly normal. Chinese, on the other hand, tend to refrain from physical contact with members of the opposite sex. That might seem strange considering China's population problem! Physical contact between members of the same sex, however, is perfectly normal. Maybe a little too normal Chinese men often feel more comfortable holding hands with another man than with a woman. Then there are those of us who feel most comfortable with a hongtashan 红塔山 cigarette in one hand and a bottle of erguotou 二锅头 in the other. Zuo and you (right) are also relative terms. On the Western political spectrum, a moderate Chinese leftist would fall considerably right of Rush Limbaugh.

In the West, xinxian 新鲜 (fresh) foods are bought in a grocery store. In China, it's only fresh if it's been transported around in a tricycle and laid out on the pavement with flies buzzing all around it. And what is known as kuaican 快餐 (fast food) in the West is anything but fast in China. The hefan 盒饭 (box-lunch) is the only real Chinese fast food because all of the various food items are mashed together in the same styrofoam container. (Note: The best [and only] way to get involved in the Chinese recycling movement is to stab your chopsticks through the top of the empty container after finishing your box lunch).

Whereas in the U.S. the Mason-Dixon Line divides the North from the South, China is one place where you can be never be sure who exactly is a beifangren 北方人(northerner) and who is a nanfangren 南方人(southerner). As a general rule, people who live north of the changjiang 长江 (Yangtze River) are northerners. That said, people in guangzhou 广州 insist that shanghairen 上海人are northerners. And beijingren 北京人 disdain Shanghainese as crassly commercial southerners (!). The only thing they agree on is that they're all Chinese.

The exact meaning of the word waiguoren 外国人(foreigner) is hard to pin down. Chinese people who immigrate to America will say they're Americans when they're in China. In America they suddenly become "Chinese" again. To further complicate matters, when traveling in a foreign country Chinese people continue to refer to the dangdiren 当地人(locals) as waiguoren 外国人. Actually, the word waiguoren 外国人 really means "a person who is not Chinese," regardless of who uses the word. Another tricky term is woguo 我国 which literally means "my country." You would think that it would refer to the country of the speaker, but that's not necessarily the case. The word means "China," and it will confuse Chinese people if used by a foreigner.

Keep the above explanations in mind and you'll always know where you stand. And if you're not Jewish, of mixed blood, left-handed or all of the above combined, fear not just memorize a bunch of xiangsheng 相声 (cross-talk), get on TV and act like a moron. Nobody will realize how little you actually know.


Previous Stories...

Surviving Chinese Weddings

The Dating Game

One Party, Two Systems

Shop till you Drop

What's in A Name

Making friends with Chinese people

Chinese Zodiac Part II

Chinese Zodiac Part I

Everyday Items in Chinese People's Homes

Blood Type

Judging a book by its cover

Losing Weight

Money is everything

The Comrade's final exam

Wining and dinning out

Pekinese in beijing

Using Your Electric Brain

Traditional Holidays

Little Emporer Syndrome

Henpecked Husbands

To Own Real Estate is Glorious