Pei Sei

My girlfriend and I have been staying with my parents here in Tampa since the 4th of July. My family has been very generous and hospitable to her during that time. Naturally, her response was, “我觉得不好意思.” Then she asked me how to say 不好意思 in English.

I usually find 不好意思 pretty easy to translate, as it can often correspond to “sorry” or “excuse me” in English. When you’re a little late to a meeting, you can say 不好意思 (sorry). When you eat the last cookie and then somone else wants one, you can say 不好意思 (sorry). When you bump someone on the subway, you can say 不好意思 (sorry).

But in this case, my girlfriend’s usage was meant to express something like, “your kindness is too much,” or “you’re being so nice that it makes me feel too indebted.” And she wanted me to come up with one easy word or phrase to translate. When I couldn’t, and I asked for help from my sister, and she couldn’t either, my girlfriend just laughed: “you Americans never feel 不好意思!”

Pei sei is apparently a Taiwanese coinage also meaning 不好意思. According to my source, by speaking fast, the Taiwanese ran the 4 syllables together so much that they became two: pei sei. I thought that was kinda of interesting.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Your source must be a little confused. “Pai sei” is a romanisation of the Hokkien (闽南语) word 歹勢. It’s used in Taiwan and Singapore, and means embarrassed, ashamed, etc…very similar to 不好意思.

  2. And as for 不好意思, I think “embarrassed” would be a suitable translation in this context.

  3. How about “You are too kind”?

  4. Brad,

    Ahhh… where do you learn this stuff?

    Yeah, I should have stressed I had no idea how reliable my source was…

  5. Well, I didn’t really know the Taiwanese characters for the word, but I have heard it a lot from Taiwanese and Singaporean friends. The contraction idea just didn’t make sense to me, since I couldn’t make 不好意思 spoken in Mandarin or Taiwanese turn into “pai sei” no matter how much I slurred. Also, it sounded like the kind of folk-etymology a mainlander would come up with if he was working off the assumption that Minnan-yu was a sort of non-standard Chinese accent, rather than a full dialect or seperate language. So, I used the Taiwanese dictionary (new version) to look it up.

  6. In that kind of context, I’d probably just say “I feel bad” in English.

  7. “Pai se” is the 闽南语 word of 歹勢,which means 不好意思. My hometown Quanzhou, which is located in Minnan district ( Southern Fujian ), pronounce it as “pai” with the second tone and “se” with the fourth tone. However, the tone differs in different place, i guess in Taiwan they pronounce it as “pai” with the first tone and “se” with the third tone.

  8. xia bi ru you shen Says: July 12, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    “a little bit shy” in this context.

  9. “You shouldn’t have.”

  10. How about “I apprecate it” which is a little twisted but the usage context is kept. It is like translating 没关系, 不用谢 to “you’re welcome,” where trying to do it verbatim makes it foreign sounding and thus to some would lose or lessen the emotions conveyed. Another example is when someone gives you a compliment “you are beaautiful,” you would reply 胡说,我都不好意思了 (nonsense, I am embarrassed) but that would need to be tanslated into “thanks.”

  11. I like the translation “I feel bad” as well.

    A funny thing happened… after I had already written this entry, yesterday my girlfriend bought something for my sister. So my sister was feeling the exact same emotion my girlfriend had been. I watched carefully to see how she would express the emotion. “I feel bad” was the phrase she used, several times.

    “I appreciate it” because it only expresses gratitude rather than the distress of the receiver.

  12. Save your breath (and hers); we know now. \w/_

  13. Luo Dawei Says: July 12, 2005 at 11:41 pm

    How about borrowing a line from Wayne’s World … “I’m not worthy!”

  14. John,

    I agree that it does not express the distress emotion. In fact, I am a tinibitie surprised that your sister (the elder one, right?) said “I feel bad” repeatedly. Given that the gratitude and distress would depend on the size (level) of the gift/assistance involved, I still would like to ask this general question: did your sister have a “thank you – but” in front of it? What I am saying is that Chinese would often skip the thank you part (especially when the gift giver is someone close) and just say I’m embarassed, whereas in comparison westerners tend to skip the embarrassment part of the expression or at least tag it with the thank you.

    Yesterday I was in one of my regular Chinese restaurants for lunch. The owner came and gave me a small dessert “on the house.” I heard myself saying just “不好意思,” and I was very sincere. However, right after I thought to myself, OMG, this is the US of A, should’ve used thanks but you shouldn’t have. But I know he’s Chinese and I know he knows I’m Chinese and he’d understand my gratitude perfectly (other than the $0 cost).

  15. According to my Taiwanese friends, Pei Sei, is Taiwanese. It means buhao yisi.

    Also, I think your girlfriend is right, as an American myself, I think we rarely feel buhao yisi. It is very much part of Chinese culture, hence the way it shows up in the language.

  16. Richard Says: July 13, 2005 at 9:25 am


    So what is 不好意思 in Hokkien? I wouldn’t be surprised if “pai sei” is a contraction of whatever 不好意思 is in Hokkien. (it certainly wouldn’t make sense with a mainlander to come up with that “folk etymology” if it sounds nothing like 不好意思 in Hokkien). It’s happened numerous times in numerous Chinese languages over the course of history. Also, virtually all words used in any Chinese language have a root (or roots, if a contraction) in some word (with an associated character) in middle/old/ancient/archaic Chinese. That’s certainly the case with the Wu dialects, and while the Min languages may have more foreign words (incorporated from the Miao-Yiao, Austronesian, and various other languages spoken by the original inhabitants of Fujian), I think that the people who come up with Hokkien-only words do tend to be guilty of being lazy (about tracing a word’s etymology) or have political motives.

  17. Richard Says: July 13, 2005 at 9:27 am

    OK, disregard my last comment. I just reread Brad’s post.

  18. john, you didn’t ask THIS sister for help in translating that emotion/concept, but i would not have been able to help, either, i don’t think — as is evidenced in the example you gave. i guess the closest i can come is “i feel indebted to you” (which i would use in conjunction w/ some form of “thank you”).

  19. From what I understand, “pai se” is good for the “I’m sorry I ran over your cat and I want to avoid getting into a fight” usage of buhaoyisi and not for the “You bought me a sweater? You shouldn’t have!” usage. That is, “pai se” is definitely apologetic.

  20. Gin,

    Yes, there was a “thank you, but” on the front every time. Good points there.

  21. 不好意思 was like one of the first phrases I learned in Chinese and my professor translated it us (depending on the situation I suppose) as meaning “I feel embarrassed”, or something to that effect. I guess it’s not really the easist thing to translate in your situation, but couldn’t you just say something like “you’ve been so kind”, “I hope I haven’t put you out”…okay, I guess it is a little more difficult than I thought..

  22. time I leave a comment, I guess I should take the time to read everyone else’s so that I don’t create an echo.

  23. Saying “thank you” is virtually a reflex reaction in english speakers. When in doubt, say thank you.

  24. I think in that particular case, 不好意思 should be translated as ” I feel overwhelmed by your kindness.”

  25. What about “You’re too kind”? Or is that too old fashioned?

  26. The Chinese characters 不好意思 literally mean “not good meaning”. I think it basically expresses that the one saying it is aware that the situation means something not good about him. The equivalent English expression – “I’m sorry”, “You shouldn’t have”, or whatever – would depend on the situation.

  27. hei long Says: May 19, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    What Gordan says is the best translation for bu hao yi si. For a long time I tried to figure this out as no chinese person could explain it to me. It cant be used as sorry because its meaning goes deeper than that, ‘Im embarrassed’ Is correct.
    ‘Wo yao shuo zhongwen, bu guo wo gan jue zhen bu hao yi si.’

  28. Lantian Says: May 21, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    I think in this situation I would translate it as “I’ve put you to so much trouble, thank you.” as pretty appropriate English…my grandmother would say, but it’s nice still.

  29. great reading all these translations of bu hao yi si. hope some Chinese language experts can help me out here. what about bu hao yi si this context? Mother one asked mother two why she stayed outside in the waiting area. She urged her to go in so she could observe and learn how the therapist was working with her son and learn a skill or two. Mother two replied: The therapist did not ask me to stay in the therapy room and I feel “bu hao yi si” to ask her if I can join them. 不好意思 seems to mean i feel out of line making a request to a person whose social position and authority are higher than mine. it is a form of deference. what do you think? thank you very much.

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