Laowai Chinese

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Tips and Strategies about the Chinese Language and Culture
Updated: 6 hours 12 min ago

Stuff You Might Be Hearing: On the Bus

Thu, 10/07/2010 - 10:36

If you’ve ever ridden on a gōngjiāo chē 公交车 in China, you’ve heard some variation on these announcements. Even though the audio quality of my cheapo, shānzhài 山寨 MP3 recorder is horrendous, the idea here is:

One way to improve listening is to understand every word being said.

In this case, that involves listening to the “recording” and reading the transcript.

I’d like to apologize for the terrible audio quality and promise that I’ll hopefully have a chance to get a better recording in the future (although this one is from Changsha when we were doing our ridiculous challenge 14 and I don’t know when I’ll be back there again). If anyone else has an audio recording of the local bus announcement, please tell me and we’ll add it here.

Recording 1: Bus Starting

Listen now:

[See original post to listen to audio]


Note: There is a file embedded within this post, please visit this post to download the file.

Full Transcript for Both Audio Files:

Note: There is a file embedded within this post, please visit this post to download the file.

chēliàng qǐbù.


The vehicle has started moving.

qǐng nín zuò hǎo, zhàn wěn, zhuā hǎo fúshǒu.

请您坐好,站稳, 抓好扶手。

Please sit properly, stand stably, (or) grab the handrail firmly

qǐng nín zhǔdòng wèi shēnbiān de lǎo, ruò, bìng, cán, yùn, jí dài xiǎoháir de chéngkè ràng gè zuò


Please take the initiative to give your seat to the old, weak, sick, disabled, pregnant, and passengers with children

xià yí zhàn: Yáolǐng Běi


Next stop: Yaoling North

Recording 2: Bus Stopping

Listen now:

[See original post to listen to audio]


Note: There is a file embedded within this post, please visit this post to download the file.

Full Transcript for Both Audio Files:

Note: There is a file embedded within this post, please visit this post to download the file.

? ? ? ? ? ? tíxǐng nín: Yáolǐng Běi dào le


(? the name of the bus company ?) would like to remind you: We’re arriving at Yaoling Bei.

qǐng dài hǎo suíshēn xiédài de wùpǐn zhǔnbèi xià chē


Please take all your carry-on things and get ready to get off the bus.

chéngkèmen, shàng chē hòu, qǐng wǎng chēxiāng nèi zǒu yǐ zhàogù hòumian de chéngkè shàng chē.


Passengers, after you get on the bus, please move to the middle of the compartment to help the passengers behind you get on the bus.



Thank you.

Things to Point Out
  • I’m also not happy that they used “chēliàng” 车辆 and ”chēxiāng” 车厢 instead of just “chē” . But that’s kind of the point of this exercise: to see the formal words used so we can understand them next time we hear them.
  • That list of “lǎo, ruò, bìng, cán, yùn, jí dài xiǎoháir” 老,弱,病,残,孕,及带小孩儿 passengers is pretty common on most buses in most cities I’ve been in (the order might even be the same)
  • That “jí” is just a formal word for “hé” .
  • “suíshēn xiédài de wùpǐn” 随身携带的物品 seems to me to be a very wordy way to say “your things.” Can anyone explain why the “suíshēn” 随身 and “xiédài” 携带 are both necessary or is it just a frozen form?
  • I translated “yǐ zhàogù” 以照顾 as “to help” because “yǐ” here means “in order to” and “zhàogù” 照顾 means “to take care of / show consideration for”. Better translations welcome.
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Northern vs. Southern Vocab

Sat, 08/07/2010 - 07:45

Since I’ve always lived in southern China (Nanchang, Kunming, Guangzhou), it’s been fun to travel up North these past few weeks and hear the locals speaking Mandarin with slightly different vocabulary choices than I’m used to hearing in the South.

This list is based on my incidental observations and isn’t meant to be comprehensive (or scientific) at all. It’s simply meant to inform lǎowài learning Chinese in either the North or the South what variations we can expect to encounter in the other half of the country. My impression is that these vocabulary differences are best grouped into vague “how people in the North/South like to talk” categories but I have no idea where that dividing “line” would be. Also, I’d like to point out that all of these words (in both the North and South columns) are accepted as Mandarin (although my feeling is that Southerners would be more surprised to hear words in the North list than vice versa). Regardless, people haven’t seemed to have any trouble understanding me regardless of where I am or which of these variations I use.

Enough disclaimers, on to the list!

North South English shá shénme 什么 what? wèishá 为啥 wèishénme 为什么 why? zǎ zěnme 怎么 how? búkèqi 不客气 / bú xiè 不谢 bú yòng xiè 不用谢 you’re welcome yíkuàir 一块儿 yìqǐ 一起 together hǎo de hěn 好得很 hěn hǎo 很好 very good

One of the big surprises has been how prevalent the “(ADJ) de hěn __ 得很” construction has been instead of “hěn (ADJ)” __. I’d seen it in books but I rarely hear it in the South. Up North here, on the other hand, it’s absolutely the default construction for such utterances as “it’s really sour” or “it’s very far” (“suān de hěn” 酸得很 and “yuǎn de hěn” 远得很, respectively).

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Linguistic Complaining

Mon, 07/12/2010 - 06:43

Learning a foreign language can be very rewarding. But it can also be very frustrating. Chinese sometimes seems to be unfairly frustrating in many ways.

I’ve been thinking about outlets for that frustration and I’ve decided that the one I’m most prone to is complaining about the Chinese language. I’ve found the following to be true about my linguistic complaining:

  1. I usually complain to other foreigners (especially those who are also trying to learn Chinese).
  2. I don’t mind complaining in front of Chinese people.
  3. I almost always complain about unchangeable, ingrained parts of the language (like the fact that there are tones).
  4. I use the word “they” when complaining about the language to mean “Chinese people” or “speakers of Chinese.”
  5. I prepare my complaints ahead of time so that when I meet a sympathetic listener I’m ready.
  6. It feels good to complain.

However, despite the temporary good feelings I may get from venting, I’ve come to believe that linguistic complaining is overall a very destructive activity. This may come as a surprise since I’ve occasionally even used this blog for some ranting. Let’s just say I’m trying to turn over a new leaf.

But before I explain why I feel I’ve got a problem and I’m trying to quit, let me give some examples of the type of complaining I’m most prone to so it’ll be easier to imagine my plight.

Types of Linguistic Complaining

1. Pronunciation

Probably the most common category for me is the tones. I find it unfair that I’ve got to learn two things for each word (the word itself and the tone with which to say it). I also find it strange that Chinese people can understand the words of songs (which follow the “tones” of the melody rather than the tones the dictionary gives for each word) but can’t understand the words I’m saying with the wrong tones. I’ve often felt that a fruit vendor or someone “misunderstood me on purpose and knew full well what I meant!”

2. Vocabulary

How do you say something in Chinese? Well there might be a whole lot of words for it and every dictionary you look in might give you a different word. I’ve often been frustrated that “They have so many words for the same thing!” in Chinese. There are also some divergent concepts where Chinese has two or more different words for something we’ve only got one word for (for example “thin” and “thick” are different in Chinese depending on the shape of the object).

3. Listening

One of the side effects of only having 409-ish syllables in Chinese plus the 5 tones is that a whole lot of words sound the same. This makes listening especially difficult. I’ve found myself getting angry when a student asked me in class (without any context), for example: “How do you say shíwù in English?” My brain immediately starts pumping out permutations of all the meanings those syllables could have with those tones (here are the four in the dictionary) and I have no way of knowing which one the student meant without resorting to hanzi or some sort of clarifying discussion.

4. Lack of Practice Partners

Over my five years in China, it’s been a real “feast or famine” regarding Chinese language practice partners. Fact is: you can’t learn Chinese (well, most people can’t) unless there’s someone who’s willing to talk to you in Chinese. During times when I’ve been isolated or unable to find people who don’t want to talk to me just to improve their English, I’ve often said to myself, “They’re so selfish! I’m trying to learn THEIR language and no one’s helping me!”

Effects of Complaining

The above examples are meant to help you identify whether you too are prone to linguistic complaining. If you are, it’s of course up to you also to decide if you think it’s a good use of your energy. For me, personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that no good comes of the type of complaining I’ve described.

1. It Torpedoes My Motivation

When I complain about these things, all of which are out of my control to change, I find that a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness quickly grows. I start thinking, “It’s not getting better, and I’ve already been trying this long. Maybe I’ve done about as much as I can with this language.”

2. It Torpedoes My Relationships with Chinese Friends

Imagine for a moment I have my own children. I don’t want my neighbor to come over and list all the bad things my kids do. I know my kids aren’t perfect, but I’m stuck with them. And there are a lot of good things they do too.

Well, as polite as our Chinese friends may be when listening to rants against their language, they would probably rather talk about something else. It’s out of their control as much as it is out of mine. But I’ve actually (shockingly!) found myself blaming individual Chinese friends of mine for “this language” and its perceived flaws. It really put a damper on our relationship. I’ve often wondered if that’s one contributing factor to those dry spells when I didn’t have Chinese friends who wanted to speak Chinese with me.

I’m amazed at how emotional I can get over these issues. Some people get angry about sports teams. I’ve gotten angry about measure words. No one wants to be around angry people on a prolonged basis.

3. It Makes Me Proud

If I could sum up the problem with linguistic complaining in one sentence it would be:

“When I complain, I feel powerful and it gives me an artificially inflated sense of who I am in this country and the whole universe for that matter.”

When I complain about something as ancient and complex as the Chinese language, I’m setting myself up as a sort of “Linguistic God.” I’m actually thinking thoughts like, “If I’d created the language I would have done things very, VERY differently.” As if I can even take credit for anything in my own language!

Zěnme Bàn? 怎么办?

Now that I’ve identified the fact that I’m a linguistic complainer and that it’s a problem for me, the issue becomes how to avoid slipping back into those tendencies to complain. As with all complaining, the root is actually thinking.

The key, for me, is to still feel free to think honestly about the language and the language-learning process, without being negative. Many of the solutions I’ve come up with have come about by thinking and speaking honestly about difficulties I’ve encountered.

But problems arise when I start thinking negatively about things I have no control over (for example the fact that the language has tones at all).

For example, I’ve found I need to avoid thoughts in the following general categories:

  • “Chinese is a bad language.”
  • “English (or some other language) is better because of ____.”
  • “If I were trying to learn a different language I wouldn’t be feeling this way.”

Such thoughts put the blame for how I’m feeling on the language. In fact, I’m in charge of my own emotional response to the language and the thoughts I allow myself to entertain. Besides, no one is forcing me to continue attempting to learn the language or even stay in China for that matter.

I’m now convinced that, regardless of the difficulties inherent in learning Chinese (and there are many), complaining about them is of no benefit to me (or anyone) and only leaves me angry or discouraged. Complaining makes me feeling powerful and it may even be entertaining to listen to. But I’ve found that the long-term costs outweigh the temporary benefits.

Thus ends the confession of a linguistic complainer.

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The Great China Quest

Sun, 07/11/2010 - 02:29

I usually don’t blog about personal stuff, but I thought my summer plan might be of general interest, especially since I’m hoping a new book will come out of it.

My friend Adrian (of Jiaozi and Panda fame) and I are going to be travelling around China for 30 days, attempting scavenger-hunt-like challenges for something we are calling (perhaps a bit presumptuously):

The Great China Quest

If you’re interested in what we’re planning (and not planning) to do, or in following our travels, there’s a whole new website dedicated to the trip complete with a blog of its own.

If you’d like to receive an occasional email whenever we post something related to the trip (we’ll be using Internet cafes along the way to post updates), you can subscribe below.

The Great China Quest Email Updates:

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Hey, That’s Cheating! OK?

Tue, 07/06/2010 - 01:44

When my brother was about six years old, I watched him play battleship against my father (play free here–WARNING: turn down sound first). There was a break in the action when my dad had to answer the phone, during which I left the room as well. When I came back in, they were playing again and my brother had miraculously begun annihilating my dad’s fleet with remarkable precision bombing. It was clear that he had simply looked at my dad’s game board while he was on the phone (as any child in his position would have) and memorized the position of all the ships (as I’m not sure any child could).

My father, of course, figured this out too. So then, much to my brother’s surprise, instead of hearing “Hit, and you’ve sunk my battle ship” after each shot, he was hearing my father say, “Miss!”

I stayed (uncharacteristically) quiet just to watch the action unfold naturally. At one point I actually heard my brother mutter to himself, “Hmm…I can’t remember where that one is.”

My father heard it too and replied, “That’s because I just moved all my ships.”

My brother, incensed, shouted, “Hey, that’s cheating!”

What’s That Got to Do with Chinese?

I would like to submit that one possible Chinese translation for my brother’s final shout could be:

Zuòbì, hǎo bù hǎo! 作弊, 好不好!
Hey, that’s cheating!

I’ve been trying to figure out how to translate a special use of hǎo bù hǎo  好不好. I propose that it could be translated as:

…hǎo bù hǎo! …好不好!
Hey that’s…!

It’s strange because hǎo bù hǎo 好不好 is usually a question meaning “ok?” or “Would that be ok?” But I recently heard it used in two situations that lead me believe it’s more of a “Hey!” sort of exclamation.

Situation 1

My students were all preparing for an oral English exam in another class in which they would have to answer the question: “Are women and men equal?” or something like that. Most of the students had already taken the test, but one student was ill or something and was going to take it right after my class. She asked me if I could tell her my opinion. When another student heard her ask me, she obviously thought it wasn’t fair for the foreign teacher to help only one student when all the others had taken it on their own. She shouted:

Zuòbì, hǎo bù hǎo! 作弊, 好不好!

Now, I’m sure she didn’t mean:

How about you cheat, ok?

Even though that’s what it sounded like at first.

Situation 2

During a little “Chinese corner” practice group, an American colleague of mine asked the Chinese native speaker in the group how to say something in Chinese (I can’t remember what). She told him but he kept proposing an alternative word, insisting that it was right. She’d never heard it. Finally, he said, “Well, when I was in Sichuan they always said that.”

She slapped a hand on the table and said:

Nà shì Sìchuan huà, hǎo bù hǎo! 那是四川话, 好不好!

We then discussed this little hǎo bù hǎo 好不好 for quite a while and I think it really meant:

Hey, that’s Sichuanese!

The underlying message being: “(So why are you asking me about that? You know full well that I’m not from Sichuan!)”

Anyone else heard this anywhere? Any alternative translations that I should consider?

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Boy Left Girl Right

Sat, 06/19/2010 - 07:39

The other day I saw a few students taking a photo together and as they were arranging themselves the girl holding the camera shouted:

“Nán zuǒ nǚ yòu” 男左女右 [boy left girl right]

This seems to be a common/traditional way of arranging a boy and a girl for a picture or on stage hosting an event, etc. Also, while it’s not 100% consistent, I started looking at xǐ shǒu jiān 洗手间 arrangement and noticed that most follow the same pattern.

I asked my students what the origin of this little phrase is. One student said that in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the doctor would take the pulse (bǎ mài 把脉, for you Word Hogs) of men using the patient’s left wrist and use the right wrist of a woman patient.

Also, apparently a married man puts his wedding ring (if he has one) on his left hand’s ring finger and a woman on her right hand’s ring finger.

Has anyone else:

1) Heard this phrase?

2) Noticed it’s usage beyond photos,  toilets, and wedding rings?

3) Learned the origin of where this came from?

If so, please enlighten us (or at least me).

(from left to right) CCTV’s Zhū Jūn 朱军 and Dǒng Qīng 董卿

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Proverb Assistance: Enemy’s Enemy

Sat, 06/19/2010 - 02:34

This tiny article at Wikipedia gives the Chinese credit for the proverb:

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

as well as:

“It is good to strike the serpent’s head with your enemy’s hand.”

But there are no references for either. I’d like to learn the Chinese for one or both of those.

So can anyone confirm that those are actually Chinese idioms by giving us the hanzi for either?

On a more general note, this little wèntí 问题 clearly shows one the of the gaps in the Chinese-learning resources market: a complete and easily searchable proverb and idiom dictionary for Chinese and English. Does anyone have a favorite they’d like to recommend?

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2 New Songs: Rich Girl, Tuífèi 颓废

Sun, 06/13/2010 - 05:57

I’m delighted to announce that my sister Marie has just finished recording two Mandarin songs here in my little studio.

1. Rich Girl

I wrote the song with our college’s hip hop dance team in mind (I haven’t heard from them whether they like the song or not yet). I invented a character (I imagined a Shànghǎi rén 上海人 for some reason) and recorded the “voice” of the ATM here on campus to mix in.

Download the MP3


2. Tuífèi 颓废

Kicking off our new Chinese cover song album, Marie played the piano and recorded all of her own vocals while I was in class. I must say, I like this piano sans-harmonica version even more than the original recording by Xián Zǐ 弦子, but then again, I’m piānxīn 偏心.

Download the MP3


Any help with the translation of Tuífèi 颓废 (including the title) would be appreciated. I’m really not sure I’ve captured the ethos of the song correctly.

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Wanted: Cantonese Materials For Foreigners Who Already Know Mandarin

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 14:18

I am not even close to committing to trying to think about beginning to learn Cantonese. It’s Mandarin all the way for me (for now). But the fact is: I’m finishing my 3rd year in Cantonese Land (where I happily use Mandarin, by the way) and I really should at least know about the báihuà 白话 here. (Oh! The peer pressure!)

According to this thread at Sinoglot, it’ll be easier for me to learn Cantonese (if I ever decided to) by comparing it to the Mandarin that I already know than it would be for someone starting from scratch (seems obvious, but it’s complicated, apparently). I won’t be able to ignore the Mandarin I already know so I’ll be comparing no matter what happens.

What I’d really like to find is some materials that outline:

1) The different Romanization systems of Cantonese (and which one I should learn)

2) The tones (including how many there are: a shockingly difficult question for any of these native speakers to answer).

3) The phonemes

4) Anything else that would be helpful in getting the “discount” based on the Mandarin I already know.

I realize the target market for this resource is (can it be true?) even smaller than the target market for my own book, but I was wondering if these things exist anywhere (outside of the comments section of that thread, of course).

Anyone (including you in that thread) have any ideas?

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