False Teeth

I can recall a time when I desperately wanted to know what Chinese people around me were saying. It was perhaps narcissistic, but I suspected they were talking about me probably a lot more than they really were. When I got to the point that I could eavesdrop and understand what people were talking about, the reality was hard to accept. These people weren’t discussing me, kung fu, or even the mystic qualities of qi. They were just talking about daily life things. Like normal people. Imagine that!

So, listening in on conversations turned out to be less rewarding than I originally imagined. Still, every now and then I hear something interesting. I overheard this “newbie-level” exchange between two old men the other day on a Shanghai street as I passed by:

> Old Man 1: 你的牙齿! (Your teeth are great!)

> Old Man 2: 假的! (They’re fake!)

> Old Man 1: 假的? (Fake?)

> Old Man 2: 假的! (Fake!)

Yes, old Chinese men talk about old men things too!


John Pasden

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


  1. Hey, looks like bloggers write about *normal” stuff too.

    I love how you add discrete links to ChinesePod in the middle of your posts now 😉

  2. lol

  3. Hi John,

    I have a dream. I hope that someday I will be able to understand completely what Chinese women are shouting in their stormy quarrels, or battle of words, I often encounter on the street or in the markets here in China.

    I’m really curious about what they are shouting about, why they have so many things to shout and can keep shouting for such a long time. I once witnessed a woman quarreling fiercely “over a bottle of mineral water” in one hand.

  4. Pei Tian Says: June 14, 2008 at 4:54 am

    So very true! I remember how I used to stand in line at the supermarkets in Vancouver, imagining the Chinese conversation behind me as:

    Man: Are the final plans for world domination in place?
    Woman: It’s all in place. We move tonight…

    As my Chinese improved, I found that somehow the reality of

    Man: Let’s put this back, it’s too expensive.
    Woman: Yeah.

    Didn’t quite carry that same sense of intrigue…

  5. Partly because my Chinese skills aren’t that good, I’ve noticed that any overheard conversations I do understand are unbelievably boring. I really need to improve so I can have interesting conversations and stop eavesdropping on everyone else.

  6. Maybe it’s time for an “Overheard in China” website.

  7. I would so read that “Overheard in China” website. I can’t recount the times that I wished I could understand all of the Chinese around me. Like Changye, I wanted to know what all the yelling was about in the grocery store or why people were forming great big circles on the side of the street(or sometimes in the middle of the street). If only I could throw a babel fish in my ear.

  8. I had a very similar experience with Spanish. When I came back to California after living in Chile for a while I remember eavesdropping a bit in an aisle at a supermarket. All my life I had wondered what those Hispanic people were saying and now I could find out! To my disappointment, they were talking about how the the price beans had gone up.

    Now Americans who think the Hispanics are hiding things by speaking Spanish make me laugh.

  9. I used to eavesdrop on conversations on the bus when I was learning Chinese in Taiwan. I was shocked when I could understand the usual cellphone conversation:

    gong che shang…
    Hey, ah..
    bye bye

  10. Did you know this post was featured in the China Daily a few days ago?

  11. Here’s what they said:

    In the beginning of Sinosplice (www.sinosplice.com) blogger John’s eight years in China, he couldn’t speak Chinese. So he fondly assumed that conversations he heard going on around him were either about him, something he was doing, or exotically esoteric topics.

    It was not until he reached a proficient level of Chinese that he made a huge discovery.

    “These people weren’t discussing me, kungfu, or even the mystic qualities of qi. They were just talking about daily life matters. Imagine that!” he writes on his blog titled False teeth.

    Ultimately he found that being able to understand day-to-day conversation in Chinese was less rewarding than he first thought. But every now and then he hears a conversation that catches his attention, like this exchange between two elderly Chinese men:

    Old Man 1: Ni de ya chi hen hao (Your teeth are great)!

    Old Man 2: Jia de (They’re fake)!

    Old Man 1: Jia de (Fake)?

    Old Man 2: Jia de (Fake)!

    “Yes, senior Chinese men talk about elderly matters too!” John writes.

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