The other day I went out with my wife, carrying my 6-month-old daughter. My daughter gets a fair amount of attention, and when we stopped to check out the DVD lady’s latest arrivals, a small crowd of Shanghainese ladies formed around us. They were quite interested in my daughter.
After all this time in Shanghai, my listening comprehension of Shanghainese has improved a lot, but I can’t say I’ve ever made a really concerted effort to learn it, and I still mishear things quite often. This was one such time.
One lady kept making the same comment over and over, which my brain sort of automatically filters through Mandarin Chinese. So what I heard, in only partly-applicable pinyin, was something like:
Hao bu xiang!
Now, 好 (hao) means “good,” but it can also be used as an adverb to modify an adjective, taking on the meaning of “very.” I know that the normal word for “very” in Shanghainese is 老 (lao), but I figured this was another way to say it.
不像 (bu xiang), of course, means, “not resemble.” So what I was hearing this lady repeating several times to my face, referring to the baby in my arms, was, “she doesn’t look at all like him!“
Kind of a rude thing for a stranger to say, no?
I’m not in the habit of replying to Shanghainese, though, and I know my comprehension of Shanghainese certainly isn’t perfect, so I just kept my mouth shut.
As we headed home, I asked my wife, “what were those ladies saying? ‘Hao bu xiang?‘ Were they saying my daughter doesn’t look anything like me?”
Her reply was, “no, of course not! They were saying, ‘hao baixiang,’ which basically means ‘very cute.’”
So then I felt pretty dumb. What they had said was:
好 (hao) did, in fact, mean “good,” but 白相 (baixiang) is the Shanghainese equivalent of the Mandarin word 玩, which means “to play,” and 好白相 (hao baixiang) is Shanghainese for 好玩, which means “fun,” or, in this case, “cute.”
I knew the Shanghainese word 白相; I should have understood the comments. It’s good to be reminded what it’s like to be something of a beginner, making beginner mistakes. (It’s also good to realize that other people are not being jerks at all!)
P.S. I really didn’t know how to write the Shanghainese in this post… I didn’t want to bust out IPA, and using characters doesn’t seem appropriate either, but those are the characters used by the Dict.cn Shanghainese dictionary (which I linked to thrice above), and if you click through you get both Shanghainese audio (you need to hold the cursor over the audio icon, not click) and alternate non-IPA romanization.