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  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 6, November 19 - 25

Back to Basics

Many Beijing Scene readers are relative newcomers to China and don't always appreciate the linguistic subtleties proffered by the Comrade. Either that or this column is just too silly to bother reading! This week it's time to get back to basics and review some of the fundamental words and phrases that many of you readers probably already know. But whether you speak yikou liulide zhongwen 一口流利的中文 (fluent Chinese), or you're still trying to figure out what laowai 老外 means, you're sure to find this week's column at least amusing if not genuinely useful. From all of you zhongguotong 中国通 (China experts - an oxymoron if ever there was one) on down to those of you who are still stabbing food with your chopsticks, whether you're bothering to study Chinese or not, there are certain words and phrases that you're bound to pick up during your stay in the PRC. Through a scientific survey of my foreign friends on a Saturday night in Sanlitun, the Comrade has determined the top 10 words or phrases that foreigners need to navigate fin-de-siecle China:

10. Foreigners learn the word pengyou 朋友, which means 'friend', pretty early on. But depending on the context, pengyou 朋友 can also mean nanpengyou 男朋友 (boyfriend), nupengyou 女朋友 (girlfriend) or even qinren 亲人 (lover). All too frequently, however, pengyou means shagua 傻瓜 (sucker). Beware of the guy you've never seen before who slaps you on the back, grins widely and starts calling you pengyou 朋友after you've known him for all of 30 seconds. He's probably got something up his xiuzi 袖子 (sleeve). When a girl introduces a guy as their pengyou, don't be so sure they aren't more than just friends (they usually mean nanpengyou). Foreign women, on the other hand, usually learn the phrase "wo ai ni" 我爱你 (I love you) before they learn the word pengyou.

9. Xiuxi 休息. Although the word xi焫i means "to rest," it can also be translated as "to take a break." That's because people will often decide to "xiuxi" in the middle of doing absolutely nothing. Example: if one is at work (at the post office, for instance) and playing cards, reading the newspaper, eating seeds or self-administering a pedicure, it is not considered "xiuxi." But when one's head hits the desk with an audible "thud," THAT'S "xiuxi!"

8. Meibanfa没办法. This is an all-around universal cop-out which translates to "there's no way," or "nothing can be done." Meibanfa is also the perfunctory, appropriate, and expected response to the rhetorical question: "zenme ban" 怎么办 (what can be done?).

7.Nihao"你好 and zaijian"再见 mean "hello" and "good-bye", respectively. Nihao 你好 literally means "you good," while the literal translation of zaijian is "see you again." Other ways to say hello include the popular Beijing early-morning greeting nin zao 您早. Asking someone if they've eaten Ni chile ma? 你吃了吗 is also a common way to dazhaohu 打招呼 (greet someone). Zaihui 再会 is an alternative way to say good-bye. Or you could just say "baibai"拜拜 like all those Taiwanese and Hong Kong tongbao" 同胞 (compatriots).

6. Duibuqi 对不起 literally means"I can't raise my face to meet yours," or simply "I'm sorry."Duibuqi can also be used as a verb, i.e. to duibuqi someone means to screw them over. Another way to express that you're sorry is by saying "buhaoyisi" 不好意思, which literally means "not good meaning." Usually you would say buhaoyisi when you find yourself in an embarrassing situation. Don't overuse the word duibuqi. Remember that in China, true friendship means never having to say you're sorry. Typical responses to duibuqi are meiguanxi 没关系 (it doesn't matter), buhaojin 不要紧 (don't worry about it) and bukeqi 不客气 (don't stand on guest airs). 5. Wei! 喂 can be translated as "Hey", "Hello!", or "Yo!" Chinese people shout "Wei!" to get each other's attention. That's why they're always saying "hello" to foreigners when they mean to say "excuse me."Wei! is what you're supposed to shout into the phone when you answer or when someone else answers your call. Once the other party begins to speak, continue to shout it a few more times as a warm-up to the impending conversation.

4. Xiexie 谢谢 means "thank you." Like duibuqi, you should try not to say it too much. After all, this is China, not Japan where every sentence has to begin and end with either "I'm sorry" or "thank you." If you talk like that in China, people will think you're up to something. Other ways to say thank you include "duoxie" 多谢 (thanks a lot) and ganxie 感谢 (I'm thankful). You should respond to "xiexie" the same way you would to duibuqi. Note that xiexie is not usually proffered in response to a compliment (unless you don't mind people thinking you're obnoxious). Instead you should respond by saying bugandang 不敢当 (I don't dare accept that compliment) or nali nali 哪里, 哪里, which literally means "where? where?"

3. Ganbei 干杯 Be forewarned: Chinese baijiu 白酒 is NOT "white wine" (baiputaojiu 白葡萄酒), although that is the literal translation. The most accurate translation of baijiu is actually "rotgut." After all, what white wine do you know with an alcohol content of 55 percent?! The Chinese equivalent of "cheers!" or "bottoms up!", "g妌b慽" literally means "dry glass."The morning after you polish off a bottle of baijiu, this word will be the only thing you remember. To get out of a ganbei, try saying suiyi 随意, which means "drink what you like," and pray that nobody objects. Or you could just vomit all over yourself and hope nobody makes you drink anymore.

2. Meiyou 没有?No matter how tone-deaf you are, nobody EVER gets the tones wrong on this word! Meiyou! Meiyou! Remember that when you walk into a department store and ask if they have, for example, towels, and the fuwuyuan 服务员 (waitperson) saysmeiyou, chances are that she means that she personally doesn't happen to have any towels on her. There may very well be towels available on the shelf right behind her, though. It's best to phrase questions so that the answer meiyou is simply not an option. "Where are the towels" is better than "do you have towels?" Note: don't say meiyou when you mean bucunzai 不存在 (don't/doesn't exist).

1.Laowai This word literally means "old outsider," and is used to refer to foreigners that don't look Asian. One of the best jokes you can play on your unwitting China-bound foreign friends is to give them the Chinese "name"Laowai. When they get to China they'll be surprised and delighted when everybody shouts their"name" at them! If you've been in China more than a day and don't know what laowai means, then you may qualify to be a consultant, foreign correspondent or language columnist.

And now, as an added bonus, here are what the Comrade has determined to be the LAST 10 words and phrases you'd ever learn in China (either because they don't exist or because everyone would rather just forget them):

10. xiongmaotang 熊猫汤 (Panda bear soup)
9. jiangshi 僵尸 (zombie).
8. shatou 杀头 (decapitation)
7. goubian 狗鞭 (dog penis) 6. zhilaohu 纸老虎 (paper tiger)
5. hongweibing 红卫兵 (Red Guards)
4. fandongfenzi 反动分子 (reactionary)
3. diguo zhuyi de zougou/zhuaya 帝国主义的走狗/爪牙 (running dog/claws and teeth of the imperialists)
2. wuchanjieji 无产阶级 (Lumpen Proletariat)
1. dongwuquan 动物权 (animal right


Previous Stories...

You say potato,
I say potato

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