I recall quite clearly the satisfaction I felt when I first became capable of conducting actual telephone conversations in Chinese. It made me feel I had really arrived, and I relished the achievement. It wasn’t long before some communication issues spoiled my victory, though. Chinese people were saying things to me on the phone that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing, and it didn’t seem very nice. In the end, it was all just cultural misunderstanding, but it would have been nice to be warned. That’s the point of this post.
The “not very nice” things all seemed to come at the end of phone conversations, and often from friends. It made me feel uncomfortable that my phone calls kept ending abruptly, on such unfriendly notes. It turns out that these expressions for ending phone calls are perfectly natural, though… in Chinese, of course.
So here they are, in no particular order, the “hang up lines” you might want to mentally prepare yourself for:
1. 就这样 (“That’s it.”) This one is probably the most common and the most widespread. It’s not meant to be rude, it’s just stating, in no uncertain terms: this conversation is over.
2. 我挂了 (“I’m hanging up.”) Just in case “this is it” is too subtle for your friend, this phrase should get the message across. This one is more likely to be used in informal situations.
3. 我不跟你说了 (“I’m not talking to you anymore [for now]”) Again, an informal one. To be fair, it’s a translation issue into English which kind of makes this one seem like some kind of declaration of anger. It just means “I’m done talking to you for now,” but the unfamiliar phrase in an unfamiliar language can seem a little shocking, even coming from a friend. When I first started hearing this one, I would always question whether I had said something to piss off my friend.
Once you get used to them, these blunt conversation enders do have their advantages; they empower you to swiftly end a telephone conversation that has run its course. They sure make, “well, I better get going now” seem weak in comparison.
An old high school friend recently visited me here in Shanghai with her husband. Our chat made the usual rounds of old friends, life updates, etc., and then settled on China. When it comes to discussing life in modern China, one topic I find myself returning to again and again in my conversations with Americans is the whole cell phone thing. Americans are always blown away by how easy and convenient (for the consumer) the system here is.
My own situation:
– Monthly 30 RMB plan with China Telecom, comes with talk time and plenty of text messages. I don’t think I ever exceed my limit, but if I do, I pay very little extra.
– Cell phone bill paid by prepaid card, which I can purchase at any convenience store in increments of 100 RMB or 50 RMB. I only need to do this about once every three months, and it takes 5 minutes to add the money to my account. China Telecom SMSes me when I need to re-up.
– My account and phone number are linked to my SIM card, which I can remove from my cell phone at any time and use in any other cell phone here in China. Upgrading a cell phone is as easy as removing and inserting a SIM card, and takes less than a minute.
– No mail, no credit cards.
I don’t even know the full extent of the hell that American telecommunications companies put their customers through, because I never had to deal with it myself. I got my first cell phone in China. But it all sounds really stupid. The whole concept of “cell phone minutes” annoys me.
The one drawback of not being enslaved by the telecommunications companies is that any cell phone you can steal you can use immediately by simply swapping out the SIM card. Small price to pay, I say. Just be careful.
The worst part about all this is that when Americans come here and realize that even China has a way better cell phone system in place, they are blown away, but they are nevertheless completely resigned to their fate. And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way…
I saw these board games on a recent trip to my local Carrefour supermarket.
Makes sense; they’re all translated into Chinese except for Scrabble, because that just doesn’t work. [There are at least two Chinese adaptations of Scrabble, though, called Magi Compo and Chinese Squabble.]
Did you notice the price stickers? Yikes! In case you missed them:
It’s not uncommon for one advertiser to buy up tons of ads in one subway station, but usually when they do that, they have two or maybe three different ads. Coca-Cola went crazy at Jing’an Temple. I think maybe they’re trying to hint at some kind of relationship between Coke, famous Chinese athletes, and some sort of sporting event, perhaps in 2008? These ads are very subtle.
Here’s a picture of a place near work where I occasionally eat:
I have nicknamed it “Filthy Delicious.” The name says it all.
What’s interesting to me, though, is the name of the cuisine boldly painted in red on the wall: 麻辣汤. This is interesting because once upon a time I was under the impression that this was the correct name, but enough chastisement from Chinese friends converted me to the “real name”: 麻辣烫. And yet there it is, in red and white, on the wall in the picture (in traditional characters, which, as you can see, totally adds class).
Search results for the two terms:
The name 麻辣汤 makes sense, because the final character 汤 means “soup,” and the dish itself is a kind of soup. (As I’ve mentioned before, it’s sort of a spicy “poor man’s hot pot.”) The final character in the latter, “correct” one is 烫, which means “burning hot.” This makes a kind of sense, except that the name becomes then a bunch of adjectives without any noun (like “soup”) to anchor it. That noun would usually come last in a Chinese dish name (as in 麻辣汤).
So what’s going on here? I haven’t had time to research it (ah, the advantages of blogging!), but I suspect it’s about tones. The name “málàtàng” likely comes from a dialect where 汤 (soup) is read “tàng” rather than standard Mandarin’s “tāng.” This kind of thing happens all the time in China’s rich linguistic tapestry, and the questions raised go something like the following:
1. Can the character 汤 have the reading “tàng” as well as “tāng”? This is not ideal, especially if there is no precedent in standard Mandarin. This would amount to a “corruption” of the character’s original reading.
2. Can we change the pronunciation of “málàtàng” to “málà tāng” for consistency? This seems ideal except that it would never work. It’s awfully hard to control how people talk, especially after they’ve settled on something.
3. Can we change the character used to represent “tàng”? If it comes from a dialect, it likely doesn’t have a standard written form anyway. If we can find something similar in meaning, a practical compromise is reached.
It seems to me that in my imaginary scenario path #3 above was selected, and character 烫 did the dirty work. I call it “dirty” because while it is no longer “a corruption of the character’s original reading,” it is instead a semantic corruption. 烫 originally means “burning hot” or “boiling hot,” but now you’re making it mean “soup,” or, if you choose to put it another way, you’re making it a non-semantic syllable in the three-character unit 麻辣烫. I don’t buy that, though, because the characters 麻辣 clearly keep the meaning of “numbingly spicy.”
If I have a point with all this, it’s that you can’t control the evolution of a language. Sure, a writing system need not necessarily do that, but when you encode individual characters with both semantic and phonetic information and then try to keep either from changing, you’re just kidding yourself. This is only a small example, but it’s a pretty widespread phenomenon now that the writing system is being used by the literate masses as a whole rather than a few elite (and the internet is certainly exacerbating the situation). Given enough time, so many characters will have their meanings muddled that the writing system will be reduced to the world’s most cumbersome “phonetic” system.
I’d be really curious to see what the written Chinese language looks like in 2000 years. It’s not going to look at all like it does now.
On my way to work each morning, I ride Line 2 to People’s Square, where I transfer to Line 1. Considering the volume of people going through People’s Square during rush hour, it’s a bit insane. What makes it much worse, though, is when there are large groups of people going the wrong way through the one-way transfer channels. They make the whole transfer process much slower and more miserable, and no one is very good-tempered about it.
Honestly, if there’s anything that’s going to embitter me about living in Shanghai long-term, it’s that damn commute.
Fortunately, police officers started enforcing the one-way status of these transfer passageways a few weeks ago. This has made everything much more pleasant, and, well, orderly. Still, Shanghai police are not known for being “badass.” They’re much better known for patiently taking a barrage of verbal abuse from the very people to whom they would be giving a savage beatdown in other parts of the world.
So the other day as I was transferring to Line 1, I saw this sullen looking young guy blow right by a cop, going the wrong way. The cop placed a gentle hand on the guy’s shoulder to tell him not to go that way, but the guy swiftly shrugged it off, not even giving the police officer a glance.
At this point I was really transfixed. Would the cops just let the guy go, or would they actually do something?
That’s when another cop busted in from the side and grabbed hold of the front of the guy’s coat, yelling something at him. The young man foolishly started struggling angrily, at which point two other cops got involved and subdued the guy. Rather than just forcing the guy to go the wrong way, cop #2 roughly led the guy away, clearly planning to give him some more trouble.
It’s funny to admit it, but this incident really made my day: Shanghai cops, actively doing their job, for the benefit of the people. What a concept!
I had a great “only in China” moment this morning that had me chuckling. On my commute to work something smelled fishy (quite literally) ahead of me, and as soon as I saw the scene I realized what had happened.
by Aapplemint on Flickr
Apparently a woman was carrying a basket of live crabs on the subway, and on the transfer from Line 2 to Line 1 in People’s Square Station, she dropped her cargo. The basket ripped open, and three large blue crabs (about the size of an American football each) fled from their prison, scuttling off in three different directions. Despite clearly being somewhat afraid of the crabs, the woman was desperately trying to collect her precious cargo (I’m not being sarcastic here; the Chinese really love their crab, and these were some pretty big crabs). As busy commuters passed by, they couldn’t help but linger for a few seconds and smile at the comical scene.
Sadly, none of us helped her out, and none of us snapped a picture.
On my way home from work yesterday I saw this ad on the subway:
At first I was really confused by the composition of the ad, but in fact someone had slipped their own (quite professional-looking) ad behind the plastic ad display cover. (They chose an oral contraceptive ad.)
> Missing Person Notice
Lu Jinhua: Female, 24 years old, 1.60 meters tall,
from Zhoukou, Henan. On May 12th, 2007
at about 7:00 pm she left home and has not returned since. Her family
is extremely worried and concerned. If anyone knows her whereabouts,
please contact Gao Jiabao at 13764498186. A reward will be given
on the spot!!! If Jinhua herself sees this advertisement,
please get in touch right away!!!
I was impressed by the sly way they got hundreds of people to view the ad on the subway (although the ad probably won’t last until tomorrow morning). And they got their ad on the internet, through me.
This whole thing has me curious, because the ad seems so professionally done. And maybe Jinhua doesn’t want to be found. Seems like there’s a story there.
The most annoying form of advertising, by far, is the guys that pass out little business card ads around the city. They do it on the subway, and they like to hang out around subways, particularly at the top of escalators, where they can push their unwanted ad-cards on you.
Then there’s the most annoying form of transportation, the motorcycle guys. They carry around an extra helmet and park outside subway stations so that when you come out they can yell “hello!” at you (translation: “want a ride?”).
Well, it seems that the motorcycle guys have taken a lesson from the ad-card kids, and starting just recently they now get right up in the faces of commuters coming off the escalator outside the Zhongshan Park Station to badger them (see picture at left). Ah, what a perfect union of unpleasantries.
I’m a wuss, so I took this picture from a distance. They noticed me photographing them, though, and it did kind of freak them out and make them unhappy. (Take that, pushy motorcycle dudes!)
The whole Shanghai vs. Beijing debate is somewhat tired, I know, so I’m not interested in rehashing it. I’m not going to bash or gush over either city. Rather, I’ve had sort of a change of heart about Beijing, and I’d like to tell why. To be honest, the more time I spend in Beijing, the more I like it. But I doubt I’d ever voluntarily relocate to Beijing.
Still, if I found myself in any of the following scenarios, I’d definitely choose Beijing:
– If I were a student of Chinese enamored with the Beijing accent or couldn’t stand hearing other dialects (there are many such students, I know)
– If I were a student of Chinese that insisted on only the very best in Chinese pedagogy that the mainland can offer
– If I were a student of Chinese enamored with xiangsheng
– If I were really interested in Chinese politics
– If I were really into the Olympics (this one has a shelf life of only a little over a year, though)
– If I were an artist or musician of any kind
– If I were really into Beijing’s hutong and siheyuan culture
– If I had a love of baijiu, that vile white rice wine
– If I liked big cities but couldn’t stand the pressure of living in a very fast-paced city
– If I were rabidly anti-corporate (I’ve noticed that international chains like McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, and Pizza Hut are much more widespread in Shanghai than in Beijing)
The only one that comes close to describing me is the last one. I’m not real happy that the restaurants which surround my apartment near Zhongshan Park are nearly all chains; it’s hard to find a good, privately-owned restaurant around here. I noticed about Beijing this last visit that there are so many little cafes and bars still. (One of the things Dave misses about Beijing most, it seems.) The only bar in Shanghai I’ve ever really felt comfortable in is the old Tanghui, and it’s long gone. None of the others have that vibe, and most aim for a bigger, “higher class” crowd.
Another thing that does make a difference to me is the fast pace of Shanghai. I don’t like it. It gets under my skin and in my bloodstream. I can feel it happening, but I can’t seem to prevent it. Hanghzou was totally relaxing, and Beijing is a lot closer to Hangzhou in that respect. And yet, in that easy, relaxed atmosphere I feel like I could float along forever and never do anything with my life. One of the main reasons I choose Shanghai is closely related to the fast pace, I think: Shanghai is a better place to get into business. And because I’m in China for the long haul, I’m very interested in where work prospects are best.
I’m not the kind of person that makes a huge deal about where I live. I feel that I could be happy in most environments, if I’m there to do something I want to do. The bottom line is that I choose Shanghai because my wife is here and my work is here. I’m happy here. But every time I go to Beijing I see more reasons to love it, and I think that in another life I could easily see myself in the Beijing camp*.
*Worth mentioning: I’ve never been in Beijing in the winter or during a dust storm.
I’ve known for a while that for the highest perceived fluency, a foreigner should aim for a Beijing accent. That’s what Dashan did, and I’ve witnessed many times that a Beijing accent just impresses Chinese people more (especially outside of Beijing). It never had any appeal for me, though.
What I have noticed, though, is that as one’s accent improves, it can move through various levels of perceived fluency, seemingly imitating some of Greater China’s regional accents. I’ve actually heard Chinese people make some of these comments, and I cobbled together this rough guide to what the various comments mean.
When they say you sound like a…
they mean that…
your Chinese is bad.
your Chinese is bad (but they tried just a little to be polite).
新疆人 (Xinjiang person)
your Chinese is functional, but your tones are a mess.
山东人 (Shandong person)
your Chinese is a bit better than a 新疆人’s.
四川人 (Sichuan person)
your Chinese is a bit better than a 山东人’s.
香港人 (Hong Kong person)
your Chinese is pretty good, but sounds a little funny.
your Chinese is good, but some consonants are non-standard.
your Chinese not only sounds like a 南方人’s, but also a girl’s. (This is not so bad if you happen to be a girl.)
your Chinese is good, but not quite up to 北京人 levels.
your Chinese is really amazing.
These impressions are sure to vary somewhat from region to region (and yes, they are unfair, subjective generalizations). Anything I missed?
I was happy when the Zhongshan Park Carrefour opened. It’s right by my apartment, and while it may not have the cheapest prices in town, it has a nice mix of local goods and imported stuff. Not long after the opening, though, I noticed that anytime I went to Carrefour–mainly weeknights right after work, or on weekends–was exactly the same time that everyone else went to Carrefour. The checkout lines were horrific, stretching back into the aisles of food. And this is even with two floors of checkout lines, all registers staffed.
Anyway, it wasn’t surprising that under these circumstances, the “5 items or less” signs were being completely ignored. This was especially frustrating for me, because I frequently only wanted two or three things. No luck. I wasn’t going to get a break in that chaos. I wondered how long it would be before they simply gave up the whole “5 items or less” line idea.
Carrefour didn’t give up, though. It has come up with a clever solution to the problem: a metal barrier and a “basket check-out” sign.
Have you ever noticed the effect of a piece of paper in your hand when you take a taxi?
If you jump in a taxi empty-handed, the driver will turn around and ask you where you’re going, listen attentively, perhaps ask a question or two to clarify, and then you’re off.
If you have a little piece of paper in your hand, however, it’s a different story. No matter how clearly you tell the driver your destination, he will fixate on that piece of paper. Unless it’s a really simple destination like “the Pudong airport,” he will likely ignore whatever you’re saying and insist on seeing that paper. The written address trumps anything that might come out of your mouth. Just shut up and give him the piece of paper with the address.
I can certainly understand how the drivers would be conditioned this way. Seeing the address clears up ambiguities — both the ones resulting from homophones as well as the ones borne of less-than-perfect foreigner pronunciation. It just feels funny, though, that the driver seems to not trust me to know my own destination, insisting on seeing the paper, when I’m the one that wrote down the address on the paper five minutes before leaving home.
It was early evening, shortly after dinner. I was on the outskirts of Shanghai trying to find a cab to get home. As I walked the streets I was vaguely aware of a guy standing facing a wall, having a conversation with another nearby guy in a car. I’ve learned that (especially in China) it’s best not to pay attention to guys facing walls on the side of the street, so I never gave him more than a glance. As I passed by, though, I couldn’t help but overhear a part of the two men’s conversation.
> Guy in car: [something annoyed and impatient-sounding]
> Guy at wall: Hold on! I just saw a foreigner so I can’t pee!
I couldn’t help but laugh. Up until that point I hadn’t realized that one of my laowai superpowers was my antidiuretic presence.
I’ve been living in China a while now… long enough to observe the long-term deterioration of my own native language abilities, as well as those of my fellow English speakers. This deterioration can take different forms, one of which is a general decay of one’s vocabulary. Although it is a very real phenomenon (the other day I used “export” when I meant to use “deport,” which is really kind of pathetic), this kind of loss of mastery is due to lack of exposure, whether it be through media or human interaction with other native speakers. It would happen in any country, to speakers of any language, given that one’s native language is not being sufficiently exercised.
What I’d like to talk about is a much more insidious form of linguistic deterioration. Its source is, specifically, Chinese culture, and its target is English speakers. If you are a native speaker of English living in China, you may have already fallen victim. Below I give some of the common ways that the Chinese environment strikes down the native speaker’s linguistic competence.
1. Net bar. In Chinese, they’re called 网吧. This is fine. We generally call them “internet cafes” in English. The Chinese seem to think that 网吧 should be translated as “net bar” in English, and many unwary foreigners have even been beguiled by this idea. For English teachers, it’s usually one of the first nonstandard usage to creep in.
2. Name card. In the English-speaking world, business people have lots of business meetings to discuss business. On these occasions of business, said business people exchange specially printed pieces of paper known as business cards. In China everyone calls them “name cards,” ostensibly because in Chinese they are called 名片 and “name card” is a more direct translation. The use of “name card” is very widespread among foreigners living in China. In doing business with the Chinese, they seem to forget the word “business card” extremely quickly.
3. House. Most Chinese people live in apartments. They refer to these as their 家 (homes). When they purchase these apartments (OK, technically, they should be called “condos” at this point, but these Chinese domiciles doesn’t really conform to any image of “condo” I’ve ever had), they say they are buying a 房子. This word is frequently translated as “house,” but in practice it, too, is just another apartment/condo. Only the wealthy own what one could really call a “house,” and they are called 别墅 by the Chinese. Yet we foreigners in China still find ourselves referring to Chinese apartments as a “house.” I might refer to “your house” when I really mean “your apartment.” It’s totally not a house, and it’s honestly kind of embarrassing.
4. Bean curd. It’s called “tofu,” OK? This English word comes from Chinese (by way of Japanese). I know all dictionaries sold in China will tell you 豆腐 is “bean curd” in English, and that may represent the two characters nicely, but “bean curd” is more a definition than a comfortable translation. And yet some foreigners start saying “bean curd” rather than tofu. Deplorable.
I think you see the pattern. The normal native speaker way of saying something (internet cafe, business card, tofu, etc.) is replaced by a more awkward way of saying it using other English words — a way that conforms nicely to some Chinese word.
There have got to be more of these, but this short list is a good start. If you’ve been living in China a while and find yourself using all of these, you might be on dangerous ground. You’re going to start making a fool of yourself on trips home. Be vigilant! Resist China’s attempts at sabotaging your own command of your mother tongue!
(If you have any more of these, I’d love to hear them. It’s not quite of the same class, but I find myself occasionally saying “mai” instead of “buy” because the Chinese word for “buy” (买) sounds almost the same as “buy,” except for the initial consonant. The point of articulation is even the same.)
Humans are such creatures of habit. Take, for example, the matter of salary. In the States it’s always a yearly figure. I have a good idea of how an American can live in $50k a year, or $75k a year, or $100k a year, etc. Likewise, salaries in China are always given per month. I have a good idea what it means to live in China on RMB 1k per month, RMB 5k per month, RMB 10k per month, etc. However, if an American asks me about Chinese yearly salaries, or a Chinese person asks me about American monthly salaries, I am thrown for a loop every time. I have to do the calculations. I don’t have a “sense” for it because I’m not in the habit of thinking about the figures that way. It’s really quite annoying.
Maybe I’m the only one that will ever use it, but I’ve made a little conversion table based on the current conversion rate of US$1 = RMB7.7743. (Numbers rounded to the nearest unit.)
The chart also reveals a shortcut that the non-mathematicians among us may not have been aware of: if you increase the RMB monthly salary by 50%, you get very close to the annual dollar salary. Conversely, if you decrease the annual dollar salary by one third, you get close to the monthly RMB salary. (This would work more precisely if the conversion were still 8 RMB to the US dollar.) Anyway, this might be useful to some people. I should have noticed this long ago.