Big Taste, as in “Spicy”
The other night I was enjoying a simple meal by myself in a dongbei (northeast China) restaurant. I overheard an exchange between two women and the restaurant owner. It went something like this:
> [after ordering]
> Woman: 上次点的菜太淡了，我们要味儿大一点的。 Last time our food was too bland. We want the taste to be “bigger.”
> Server: 好的。 OK.
> [the dishes are served, the women try them]
> Woman: 服务员，我们刚才说过了，我们要味儿大一点的。 Server, we just told you: we want the taste “bigger.”
> Server: 你这个“味儿大”啥意思？是说咸点，还是什么？ What do you mean, “bigger?” Saltier, or what?
> Woman: 就是味儿大一点。辣点。 Bigger taste. Spicier.
> Server: 哦，你要辣一点的。我以为“味儿大”的意思就是味道浓一点。 Oh, you wanted it spicier! I thought “big taste” just meant stronger flavor.
> Woman: 不，是辣的意思。 No, it means spicy.
> Server: 那，你本来就应该说“辣点”。 Then you should have just said “spicy” in the first place…
> [The server takes the dish away to make it spicier, grumbling a bit.]
I was intrigued by this exchange for several reasons. First, neither party was from the Shanghai region, so the miscommunication couldn’t be blamed on the north-south divide that you typically see in Shanghai (like the baozi / mantou distinction). Second, the women were using an expression which, although simple, I had never heard either, and I couldn’t find listed in any of the dictionaries in Pleco (I was looking it up while eavesdropping on their conversation). And third, any time groups of Chinese people have trouble communicating, it’s interesting to me for linguistic reasons, as well as somewhat comforting, as a student who has experienced his own fair share of frustrating communication difficulties.
Also, since the word 味儿 can refer to odor as well as taste, in the absence of clear context, a more likely interpretation of 味儿大 is “strong-smelling,” or, quite possibly, “stinky.”
Anyway, after I finished my meal, I decided to go over and ask the women about the 味儿大 expression they used, where they were from, etc. They were extremely cooperative. It turns out they’re from Yichang (宜昌). I recorded the conversation, edited it down a little, and have included it for your amusement.
味儿大 conversation (MP3, 01:15 606kb)
And the transcript, supplied by my helpful assistant:
> J: 不好意思，打扰一下。
> A: 嗯，说。
> J: 我刚才听到你们在说什么味儿大，我是学语言学的。
> A: 你请坐吧，坐吧。
> J: 谢谢！我想问一下，你们是哪里人啊？
> A: 宜昌的。湖北三峡大坝知道不？
> J: 不知道。
> A: 嗯？！全世界的第二大水利工程，三峡工程。
> J: 噢～，这个我知道的。
> A: 葛洲坝。
> B: 葛洲坝的。
> J: 哦，那你们那儿的说“味儿大”就是说？
> A: “味儿大”我们就说，意思是说，辣一点。
> J: 那“味儿小”呢？
> A, B: 清淡一点。
> J: 可以说“味儿小”是吗？
> A: 对。
> B: 不是说“味儿小”，我们不说“味儿小”，我们就说淡一点儿。
> J: 那味儿不大呢？
> A, B: 就叫清淡啊。
> J: 清淡和辣。
> B: 我们都叫麻辣味儿。
> J: 你们不说辣？
> B: 说麻辣味儿。
> A: 我们那边比较辣一点，都说家常味儿。
> B: 不，家常味儿是普通的。味儿大一点就很辣的。
> A: 不对，因为我们那儿都是吃辣的。
> J: 你们都喜欢吃辣的，是吧？
> A: 对。我们那边接近四川。
> B: 我们就是喜欢吃辣一点儿的麻一点儿的。
> J: 那我知道了。谢谢，打扰你们了。
> A, B: 没有，没有。
That’s one of the things that’s fun about being a foreigner in China: random strangers often don’t mind talking to you, even when you dump annoying linguistic questions on them.