As an English speaker, you may be tempted to think that “where are you from?” is a super basic question. Just 4 words, right? How hard could it be? Well, for this particular question, in the particular language of Mandarin Chinese, it can be phrased more than 10 different ways.
Before I get into this, let’s be clear: I’m not trying to say Chinese is super difficult to learn, or that beginners can’t learn it. No no no no. I may personally feel that the language is kinda hard to learn, but Chinese is not bad at all when it comes to sentence structure in particular. BUT, it’s not unreasonable for beginners to assume that the question “where are you from?” is super straightforward, with just one way to express it in Chinese. And it’s that little assumption that I’m destroying here. You may have to put forward just a bit more effort on this one.
The Swappable Words
A big part of the problem is that in the question “where are you from,” pretty much every part of the sentence can be expressed in multiple ways. Let’s break it down:
where:哪里, 哪儿, 什么地方, 哪个国家 So the first two are the most common and should be learned first, but you will hear the others as well, so you have to learn them sooner or later
are… from:从……来, 来自, 是……的 There aren’t one-to-one translations, they’re roughly corresponding structure. See below for more clarity here.
you:你 OK, this one you don’t have to worry about much, at least!
I live in Shanghai, so I’m going to pick 哪里 and stick with it for these examples. Just keep in mind that most of the others probably work as well.
你从哪里来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái?)
你来自哪里？ (Nǐ láizì nǎlǐ?)
你是哪里人？ (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ rén?)
你是哪里的？ (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ de?)
你是（从）哪里来的？ (Nǐ shì (cóng) nǎlǐ lái de?)
The Big “Where are you from?” List
OK, now let’s put all these words and structures together and see how many sentences we can come up with!
Wow, that’s kind of a lot. The good news is that there a few that are used much more often than the others. Different native speakers will have different opinions on which ones are the most common, and it’s also partially dependent on region.
The “Where are you from?” Shortlist
You’ll hear lots of these in China, but after I asked a bunch of Chinese teachers, the most common favorites were:
你是哪里人？ (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ rén?) — popular with southerners
你是哪儿人？(Nǐ shì nǎr rén?) — popular with northerners
你是哪个国家的？ (Nǐ shì nǎge guójiā de?)
What might be surprising is that the question which most learners start with is not in the list:
你从哪里来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái?)
你从哪儿来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎr lái?)
When asked, the teachers say that’s because it sounds a bit formal (same with using 来自). That doesn’t mean that a beginner shouldn’t use it, though… it’s still fine.
So I bet you want to just pick one, memorize it, and use it exclusively, right? That’s fine. You can do that.
BUT, that’s not necessarily going to help you when you talk to random strangers in China. They are going to ask you where you’re from, and that’s when the big “Wheel of ‘where are you from?’” is spun, and the gods determine your fate.
Rather than memorizing 20 “where are you from” question forms, go with your gut. If you just started chatting, and you hear a 哪里 or a 哪儿 (exception: taxi drivers!), and maybe a 国家 or a 地方 or a 的 on the end, just assume they’re asking where you’re from. This usually works.
Pro tip: Also be sure to answer in a complete sentence. Something like: “我是美国人。“. This way if you guessed wrong about what the person was asking, that person won’t be too confused by your answer.
I’m not saying you have to learn 20 ways to ask “where are you from?”
I am saying that if you are feeling frustrated because you’ve been studying for a while, but you still sometimes can’t understand the simple question “where are you from?” that there is actually a good reason, and it’s the fault of the Chinese language, not your fault.
Over time, you will get these. It’s just a little more work than memorizing one sentence.
At the book store the other day, I noticed this series of graphic novels that covers the entire Star Wars saga (Original Trilogy, Prequel Trilogy, and Sequel Trilogy: all 9 movies):
I’m not sure these comic exist in English, but I imagine they do? (Anyone know?)
The 9 movies’ names, in Chinese are:
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
There are some good Star Wars-related key words in there (Jedi, Sith, Skywalker, etc.)… Only problem is that most Chinese people don’t care for Star Wars, so it’s not exactly “practical vocabulary” we’re talking about here! If this is a “Chinese market only” series, then I imagine it’s an effort by Disney at “cultural education” leading up to the final episode of the Skywalker Saga.
I was struck by the use of the word 怕 on this package:
Literally, “afraid of being dropped” and “afraid of being crushed.” I’m more used to seeing 易碎 on boxes: literally “easily broken” or “fragile.” This struck me as interesting because neither the box nor its contents actually fears anything. It doesn’t feel like an anthropomorphic usage, so it’s got to be an abstraction of the human “fear” emotion.
When I thought about it some more and talked about it with some AllSet Learning teachers, I realized it’s not just a matter of the two kinds of fear “human fear” and “abstracted fear”; there’s actually a whole range of usage with this 怕:
怕冷 (pà lěng) to be sensitive to the cold (lit. “to be afraid of cold”)
怕热 (pà rè) to be sensitive to heat (lit. “to be afraid of heat”)
怕辣 (pà là) to be sensitive to spiciness (lit. “to fear spicy”)
怕生 (pà shēng) to be afraid of strangers (lit. “fear the unfamiliar”)
怕黑 (pà hēi) to be afraid of the dark
怕死 (pà sǐ) to be afraid of death
怕高 (pà gāo) to be afraid of heights
怕人 (pà rén) to be shy around people (usu. describing a child), to be afraid of people (usu. describing an animal)
怕水 (pà shuǐ) to be afraid of water (usu. because one cannot swim)
Are they just degrees of the same emotion? Or are they totally different usages? It can be difficult to separate shades of meaning, especially for native speakers. This is what the field of semantics deals with.
To me, learning how other languages construct words and phrases in both familiar and utterly unfamiliar ways is one of the major joys of learning a language.
It’s always fun to discover cultural tidbits from home unexpectedly implanted in China, whether it’s Marvel superheroes, Steve Jobs, or even potatoes. So it was fun to make these two book discoveries in my local bookstore:
Snow Crash (雪崩) is a classic cyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson (尼尔·斯提芬森). 雪崩 simply means “avalanche,” so it’s a shame that this translation seems hardly nuanced. But still… it’s Snow Crash!
H. P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos (克苏鲁神话) is well-known by all American geeks, but this is the first time I’ve come across it in China. Three volumes, even! The books were shrink-wrapped, so I couldn’t see exactly what they contained without buying them.
Xi Jinping’s Stories
Finally, there’s this gem: 习近平讲故事 (Xi Jinping Tells Stories). The book was with children’s books, but a quick glance revealed that this was not a book for kids. Yes, it was stories, but it was the sort of pretty straightforward propaganda the cover suggests, intended for adults.
Because it’s from classical Chinese, it’s written in traditional characters and also reads right to left. It’s also a pretty simple introduction to classical Chinese, so if you’re intermediate or higher, it’s worth a closer look.
Even in small matters, do no evil.
Even in small matters, do not fail to do good.
A few notes on the classical (or harder) Chinese:
勿: “do not” for commands (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
I spotted this EF advertisement here in Shanghai recently:
The text reads:
At English First, we
only use real foreign teachers
100% TEFL/TKT double certification
100% full-time teaching
100% university graduates
So you see a white face and the promise of “REAL foreign teachers.” Is this some kind of racist ad? No, no, you are mistaken: they’re referring to the qualifications of their teachers, which just happens to be written in smaller type below. It’s just a coincidence that the teacher they chose for the ad is white, right?
This seems like a dog whistle advertisement to me. They’re communicating with the racist segment of their target market while also maintaining plausible deniability.
Sometimes it feels like the environment is actively trying to teach certain words or grammar patterns. Recently I’ve been seeing this series of ads in the Shanghai Metro every day:
In this case, the pattern is a negative version of 为……而……. The pattern 为……而…… indicates doing a certain action for a certain purpose (apparently the red line is just there to emphasize “NOT for this purpose”). I discovered that this pattern was not yet on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, so I immediately added it: Explaining purpose with “wei… er…”.
The ads are interesting, because they come from JD.com (京东), which presumably sells sporting clothing and equipment (the ad mentions 京东体育), but it’s not made explicit what’s for sale. Furthermore, JD.com take a stance on values which seem to go counter to what a lot of young Chinese people are doing these days, and the values they’re advocating don’t seem to clearly lead to greater sales for JD.com.
The ads roughly translate to:
Exercise, not for your WeChat Moments [China’s version of Instagram]
Exercise, not just because everyone else is
Exercise, not to keep up with the trends
Exercise, not because of what other people think
Exercise, not for the selfies
(As you can see, it’s also challenging to translate the 为……而…… pattern into English in a consistent way. It would be nice to use “for” in all of them, but it just doesn’t work for some of them.)
Last month my friend Zach Franklin and I spent a half-hour in a recording studio talking about reading Marvel graphic novels as a way to practice Chinese. Not sure how often I’ll do this kind of recording, but hopefully you Chinese learners will find it interesting!
The last interview I did of Zach was all text, for the 2010 interview post The Value of a Master’s in Chinese Economics. Now you get to hear his voice and learn a bit more about how he uses his Chinese for less serious endeavors.
This week my wife and I have been planning a short family vacation to Japan. We’ll be hanging out in Fukuoka for a bit in August.
I majored in Japanese long ago, spoke pretty fluently, and was even reading Japanese literature. Now, after 18 years in China, my Japanese is rusty, but I do still speak it. Reading is much harder than it used to be, because all that Chinese in my brain wants to interpret the Japanese characters I see as Chinese. The more kana mixed in with the Japanese, the easier and more natural it is for me to read kanji as Japanese.
Anyway, what I’m finding much more difficult than reading Japanese is listening to it… in Chinese. The Chinese, of course, read Japanese kanji as if they were Chinese hanzi. In some cases, the Japanese words, pronounced as Chinese, become full-fledged loanwords in Chinese. No surprise, and no big deal. You get used to hearing Tokyo (東京) pronounced as “Dōngjīng,” and Kyoto (京都) as “Jīngdū,” etc.
But what you don’t get used to is hearing everything Japanese pronounced as Chinese. While we’re planning the trip, my wife is constantly dropping the Chinese names of all kinds of random Japanese places, and that’s something my poor brain can’t handle. On the one hand, they’re Japanese places, and I speak Japanese, so I want to know the Japanese names of the places we’re talking about. But on the other hand, my wife isn’t just going to learn Japanese for this trip, and she speaks to me mostly in Chinese, so of course she’s going to use the Chinese names. So my brain has to keep trying to jump through this series of hoops:
Chinese pronunciation → Chinese hanzi → Japanese kanji → Japanese name
(Sometimes I can get as far as step 2, but rarely can I get to step 4.)
I noticed these ads on the Shanghai Metro recently:
妈妈， [Mom,] Tom老师 教我的发音 [The pronunciation Teacher Tom taught me] Amy老师说不对！ [Teacher Amy says is not correct]
妈妈， [Mom,] 今天外教 [today the foreign teacher] 把我的名字 [got my name] 叫错了三次。
“Dada English” is one of a new wave of Chinese online English learning platforms which includes “VIP KID.” What makes these platforms special is that they all purport to offer native speakers as teachers, and many of them are from North America or Europe. (I understand that some of the competition uses mostly teachers from the Philippines.) The first ad above emphasizes 欧美外教: teachers from North America and Europe.
What about the Chinese teacher of English? A resource long known to be often “less than perfect” with regard to native-like English abilities and yet nevertheless a crucial component of the educational system, is not even a part of the discussion these ads are trying to create. Rather, it’s a matter of where your foreign teacher is from and how professional he is.
I’m really curious if there is enough of the right kind of labor in North America and Europe to keep these business models afloat in the long-term. I suspect it’s going to be a lot harder building and maintaining a team of online freelance English teachers when those teachers are not Chinese or physically in China.
“Born Fried” is almost certainly an overly literal character-by-character translation of 生煎, a kind of bready, fried stuffed bun. Wikipedia describes it like this:
…a type of small, pan-fried baozi (steamed buns) which is a specialty of Shanghai. It is usually filled with pork and gelatin that melts into soup/liquid when cooked. Shengjian mantou has been one of the most common breakfast items in Shanghai since the early 1900s. As a ubiquitous breakfast item, it has a significant place in Shanghainese culture.
That same page gives the literal translation “raw-fried” for 生煎. Still, there’s something about “Born Fried”… it has a cool ring to it.
In case you’re not familiar with this little joyful celebration of grease, here are a few photos from Flickr (not my own; click through for the photographer’s photos):
My love of characterplay aside, “and” has to be one of the worst English product names I’ve ever seen. It’s a faithful translation of its Chinese product name, 和 (meaning “and”), but that doesn’t make it any better.
Happy Year of the Rooster/Cock/Chicken! Just as the English word “cock” has multiple meanings, the Chinese word 鸡 (“chicken”) does as well. By itself, it can mean “prostitute,” but the same sound “jī” is also part of the Chinese word for, well, “cock.” I guess I’m friends with a bunch of upstanding Chinese folk, because I didn’t see the many puns I feel I could have for this year’s barrage of Chinese New Year greetings.
Here’s one tame pun I did see this year:
So the original word is 点钞机, “money counting machine.” Substituting 鸡 (“chicken”) for 机 (“machine”) doesn’t change the sound at all, but 点钞鸡 falls right in line with the Chinese proclivity for wishing financial success in the New Year. And you can totally imagine a money counting rooster.
My daughter is almost 5, and she has a penchant for “riddles.” At first, these started out super simple, such as, “what animal can fly?” or “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” Over time, they started to get more and more complex, morphing into questions such as, “what animal can fly but isn’t a bird?” or “what animals swim in the ocean but aren’t fish?” or “name three animals that live in the ocean but have no eyes.” These games are good linguistic exercises, reinforcing the vocabulary my daughter is picking up in the books we read her. In most cases, she can even do these riddles bilingually, and she enjoys quizzing her mom in Chinese on the ones I give her in English that she is able to answer.
Occasionally I’ve asked her to give me a riddle, and it’s usually something super simple, similar to the afore-mentioned “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” one. Fair enough… I don’t expect the riddle of the Sphinx from a 4-year-old. But the other day she asked me this one:
What has 5 legs and lives in the sky?
Pretty certain that no animal has 5 legs, I figured she got the number wrong, and was counting a tail as a leg or something. So I guessed “dragon” and “pegasus” and the like, but she said those were wrong, and she knows a tail isn’t a leg. I was stumped!
The answer to the riddle is “a star.” (She’s most familiar with the 5-pointed star, which she’s always getting in sticker form.)
I was kind of blown away by this, because it’s a pretty cleverly crafted riddle. Trying not to be too quick to declare my daughter a genius, though, I gave some thought to what might be going on in her bilingual mind.
In Chinese, a 5-pointed star is called a “五角星,” literally, “5-corner-star.” But here’s the thing… “foot” in Chinese is 脚 (pronounced “jiǎo,” exact same pronunciation as 角 above), and it’s a word sometimes used to represent the whole leg. She hasn’t officially started learning Chinese characters yet, and she definitely isn’t aware of how the two Chinese words are written. So in her mind, is it all the same “jiǎo”? Is a Chinese five-pointed star a “five-legged star” to her?
I tried to investigate this question, but my daughter didn’t have much patience for my line of linguistic questioning (a trait she probably inherited from her mother). In the end, I got her to answer like so:
Me: Do you know what the 五角 in 五角星 means?
Her: It means “five legs.”
Her: [thinks for a minute]
Her: …or “5 corners.”
I’m not sure if she thought of that second meaning when she was devising her riddle, and neither is she. Language acquisition is a largely unconscious process, and that’s especially true for kids. She hasn’t come up with any similarly clever riddles since. We’ll see what happens.
There’s a brand of high-quality wigs in China called Rebecca. The Chinese tagline for these wigs is:
The simple slogan (great for beginners!) sets up a nice contrast between the words 假 (fake) and 真 (real). It doesn’t translate well into English, though, because the word for “wig” in Chinese is 假发, quite literally, “fake hair.” So here are your two most obvious direct translation candidates:
“Fake hair, real me”
“Wig, real me”
Pretty bad. The wigs themselves look pretty gorgeous, though, and Rebecca hired Chinese superstar babe 范冰冰 (Fan Bingbing) is their model:
The Rebecca wigs also occasionally stray into the “slightly less than practical,” apparently:
I saw The Martian (火星救援) in Shanghai over the weekend. I had read the book, and I was looking forward to seeing the movie on the big screen. Overall, I found that it was a decent adaptation of the novel, and I enjoyed it. China seems to be enjoying it too! There were two things that caught my attention, watching with a Chinese audience, however:
“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”
I was looking forward to seeing how this line (seen in the trailer above at about 01:30) was rendered in Mandarin:
> “So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
(The part I was most interested in was the later half, where the word “science” is used as a verb, and in a crudely amusing way.)
Here’s the Chinese translation:
I would translate that back into English as:
> “I gotta fucking find a way to survive.”
The movie’s translation is not horrible; it captures the meaning and the tone of the original, but it seems more grim and determined than humorous, because it sacrifices the science! Oh well.
Accidental China Pandering Still Counts
The other thing that amused me was the Chinese audience’s reaction to the way China fit into the plot. [SPOILER ALERT!] Chinese audiences aren’t dumb, and they know when they’re being pandered to by Hollywood. In this case, the Chinese Space Agency’s involvement in the rescue of Mark Watney was actually a part of the plot in the original book; it wasn’t inserted by Hollywood in a bid to ensure box office success in China.
But the way the scene was done, cutting to China out of nowhere, just felt so similar to the infamous Iron Man 3 scene (with the Chinese doctor and the Fan Bingbing nurse cameo), that as soon as the audience realized that China was about to save the day, they all laughed. They laughed! They weren’t proud or appreciative, it was just an, “oh puh-leeeze, here we go again…” reaction.
I’m pretty sure that’s not the Chinese reaction the producers were going for; hopefully Hollywood gets better at this!
David Moser recently attended a professional conference and shared this observation about code switching. I’ve edited the content just a little bit to anonymize it, but preserved the original text when possible:
> I attended an all-day series of talks today. Some of the panels were in Chinese, some in English. One that I found particularly interesting was an afternoon panel with [quite a few big-name CEOs]. The panel was supposed to be in Chinese, but I found it hilarious that all of these participants, steeped as they are in American and Western culture and business, seemingly can no longer speak pure Chinese. It is simply impossible for them. Some of the panelists could hardly speak even one sentence without throwing in an English word or two. I started writing down some of their code-switching, but it was so ubiquitous I soon stopped even trying. Here are some examples:
他们从 blood 里面就有 business 的 DNA, 他们就算 natural innovators.
张先生是不是觉得有点被 left out在外, 我建议你参与进去就会 live up to 她刚才说的职员的那种 expectations.
我要讲一个 personal experience, 你可以 believe it or not.
没有，我 just kidding, 但不妨 tell you the truth…
And this delightful misunderstanding:
A: 这是为什么有人说我们中国人是 the Jews of the Orient.
B: The juice of the Orient? 东方的橙汁？？
> And on and on. These poor elite CEOs literally can no longer speak like normal people. This kind of linguistic mixing is incredibly common in China, as we all know, but I’ve never experienced such an orgy of code-switching in my life.
I like #6 the best. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Moser!