Learning, Not Spurning

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, (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!

白相相 副
Photo by Elaine_Song

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:

Hao baixiang!

(hao) did, in fact, mean “good,” but 白相 (baixiang) is the Shanghainese equivalent of the Mandarin word , 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.


John Pasden

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


  1. Benjamin Says: May 24, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Does your wife speak to your daughter in Shanghaiese in lieu of Mandarin? Do you have any plans to take on learning Shanghaiese?

    • My wife speaks to our daughter in Mandarin, but my mother-in-law speaks to her in both Mandarin and Shanghainese.

      I don’t have specific plans to take on Shanghainese, but I’m still learning it little by little. I use my father-in-law’s approach as a model. He doesn’t speak it, but after living in Shanghai for so long, he understands 99% of what he hears.

  2. This post made me think of Shanghaining.com and their motto 侬白相啥, then Google reminded me that you’d written a post referencing the site a long time ago. Interesting how we learn things in different orders…

    • Ha, I had forgotten about that post!

      Which order are you referring to? I “learned” 白相 a long time ago, but that didn’t stop me from misunderstanding it in this specific context… 🙂

  3. You might be interested in this Top Floor Circus song, 进来白相相。 It’s about something a little more adult than little babies, but the chorus is quite relevant…


  4. We didn’t do a Shanghainese Podcast about this one in particular, but we did do one that was very similar. http://ow.ly/b7sBU 出去玩 uses the same “wan” or “xiang” word. Very high frequency.

  5. A real-life example of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and the excellence in keeping quiet (Chinese trait) until you’re schooled later to understand.

  6. Silence is golden!

  7. A funny story, but it could have made you frustrated on the spot. 🙂

  8. Phew.. Good call.That could have been hugely embarrassing. I would have assumed:

    a) they think you can’t speak Mandarin, nevermind basic Shanghainese
    b) they’re talking about you right in front of you
    c) they don’t even think 好不像 isn’t even insulting.. much like the way Chinese women tell each other ‘你发胖了!‘ all the time without flinching

    All of that within about 1/2 a second.

  9. We have a six month old now too – and when we go out (in Chengdu) we hear 好乖啊!Hao guai aaah! I must have heard it a thousand times, but at first I did not know what was implied, clearly it was not about behaviour. They are saying what a beautiful looking child.

  10. This is funny. 好白相 may also mean very fun (in the case when you are talking about a game). That’s how I always use it in Shanghai. Although after I came here I learned people from different areas of Shanghai still speak Shanghainese differently. Very interesting.

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