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  Beijing Scene




Say Cheese and Other English Phrases in Chinese


For those learning Chinese, take comfort that once in a while the way you say something is the same way we say something.

Greetings Comrades! Grab your pencils and crayons and put on your thinking caps, it's time for a few more pearls of wisdom from your favorite Mandarin Majority language maven.

The thing to remember about Chinese, linguistically speaking, is that we decided to go a different route from a lot of other languages, what with the characters and the tones and all. So if you want to curse like a cab driver, be as pedantic as a Party cadre, or practice the fine art of misleading Mandarin in pursuit of money, you're going to have to learn a whole lot of words from scratch. This means more new information to clog your noggin' for every concept you want to get across.

On the plus side, as a foreigner you'll get "White Boy (and Girl) Joy" for your ability to say words like "thank you" and "yes." That is, of course, unless you're of Chinese extraction and due to geographical reasons (like, say, having been raised in Louisiana) didn't learn the tongue from birth, in which case you'll be scoffed at for your imperfect Chinese until you get, well, perfect.

For anyone learning a foreign language and facing a sea of new vocabulary, there's comfort in the fact that every once in a while, the way "they" say something and the way "we" say something is the same, and learning new words isn't laborious at all. Chinese has far fewer points of similarity with English than, say, French or German. But, because of cultural borrowing over the past century or so, there are a few words shared in Han-talk and Anglo-talk:

Ma means mom, just like in English and every other language known to woman. Be careful how you use it with friends. ta muqin de che is "his mother's car." Unless you're very angry you'll want to avoid saying ta ma de accidentally. It means "His mother's (expletive deleted)."

Ba means pa, or dad. No need to wield this word with as much care. As in most cultures, while the chances are good you'll get all your teeth knocked out if you talk about someone's mother, it's okay to diss their father.

But let's say you're learning a few new Chinese words and you get hungry. Hungry for say, a qiaokeli (chocolate) pai (pie), with bingqilin (ice cream) (qi lin is a transliteration of "cream"), and maybe some jishi (cheese) on it too. Afterward you can wolf down a hanbaobao (hamburger) and zhapi (draught beer) to get that funny cheese taste out of your mouth.

If this makes your head hurt, take two asipilin (aspirin). See? You can do this, you're ku (cool). This language learning business isn't so hard after all.

The stereo's playing some bulusi and some jueshi. You guessed it, blues and jazz. Now that you're getting into it, let's have another ting (tin) of beer. Grab the maikefeng (microphone) - it's time to kala-oukei (karaoke). You Anglophones borrowed that word from the Japanese. "Kara" means empty. The "O" in karaoke the Japanese borrowed to sound like the "O" in "orchestra," which the English took from from the French who got it from Latin, which siphoned it from the Greek word "orchestrai," which stems from Indo-European "ergh," which means swift movement, and sounds uncannily like the grunts your Comrade makes when he goes for his daily squat.

Oops, think I just had one beer too many, or was it that glass of weishiji (whiskey) and kele (Coke) I downed while you weren't looking? Getting dizzy, feeling xiesidili (hysterical), losing balance.

This reminds me of the time I spent the night at ba (bar) and woke up in the morning after a malasong (marathon) session of pukepai (poker) lying on a red velvet shafa (sofa) wearing nothing but my BP machine, bipiji (beeper).

What was the name of that place? Club Wonderful, I think. So many places now called Wandefu. What did they put in that drink? yapian (opium), hailuoyin (heroin), kekayin (cocaine)? Who knows.

Whenever I indulge too much, I start imagining that I'm the incarnation of Sai Xiansheng (Mr. Science) or De Xiansheng (Mr. Democracy), stalwart symbols of China's New Culture Movement launched on May 4, 1919. Or I dream I'm in jianada (Canada) teaching Mandarin on TV where I have my own xiu (show) and sell products like maple syrup and Canadian bacon with my smarmy face on the label. Maybe I'll even turn into a yapi (yuppie), trade in my pingpangqiupai (ping-pong paddle) and take up gaoerfu (golf).

As your Comrade, I will try to remember you, gentle readers, well after I become a big meiti (media) star. Who knows, maybe I'll be so successful that everyone in the West will start using Chinese expressions like tai niu le (too cool, man), to sound hip. Baibaile! (Bye-bye!)

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