My con­stant tango with the Chi­nese lingo

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI -

Ifirst dis­cov­ered that the Chi­nese I had learned back in Singapore isn’t nec­es­sar­ily ap­pli­ca­ble in China when I was on hol­i­day in Hainan Is­land a few years ago. I mean, what I learned was in­deed Chi­nese, but as it turned out, some things in China just aren’t said the way they are back home.

When asked if I would like to drink some ( ), I promptly agreed, think­ing that the host was talk­ing about “white wine”. Af­ter all, means white, while means wine, or al­co­hol. Given the hu­mid­ity in Hainan at that time of the year, a glass of chardon­nay or sau­vi­gnon blanc also seemed like a nice way to start the meal.

What ap­peared be­fore me, how­ever, was a shot glass filled with a col­or­less liq­uid that had a pun­gent, al­most over­pow­er­ing odor. Not want­ing to dis­re­spect the host, I clinked glasses and drank the bev­er­age. Twenty four hours later, I could still taste the al­co­hol in my mouth. It cer­tainly wasn’t pleas­ant.

When I first moved to Shang­hai a cou­ple of years ago, the thing I learned was that taxis here are called

(ch z ch ), which lit­er­ally means “rental ve­hi­cle”, in­stead of

( ). It is some­thing that I still find dif­fi­cult to pro­nounce till today be­cause I al­ways end up sound­ing like a choo choo train (try re­peat­ing those three words quickly, you’ll see what I mean).

In­ter­est­ingly, I’ve learned many les­sons in “China Chi­nese” in taxis. For ex­am­ple, my re­quest to the driver to take a left turn was met with a look of con­fu­sion — ap­par­ently “turn” means ( ) and not ( ). A friend later told me that the lat­ter refers to turn­ing a full cir­cle. I’m glad the driver did not fol­low my in­struc­tions. A few weeks later though, my Uber driver ac­tu­ally used the word when ask­ing which small lane he should turn onto. I’m still try­ing to fig­ure out how this works.

The other les­son learned in a taxi was that “air con­di­tioner” is ac­tu­ally called ( ) in China and not ( ). When I re­quested for the air con­di­tioner to be turned on — it was one of those swel­ter­ing sum­mers where tem­per­a­tures had hit 38 de­grees Cel­sius — the driver flashed me a be­fud­dled look and then ig­nored me.

My lo­cal Chi­nese friend, who was seated be­side me, laughed be­fore say­ing: “It’s called here. lit­er­ally means ‘cold gas’. And he’s prob­a­bly won­der­ing why you think he has such a thing in his taxi!”

While look­ing out the ve­hi­cle, I won­dered aloud if I should get

Cour­tesy of The World of Chi­nese, www.the­world­ofchi­nese. a bi­cy­cle in Shang­hai. This time around, my friend was the one who gave me a puz­zled look. “What do you mean by ch )?” he quizzed. “How can you not know what a bi­cy­cle is?” I replied. “But bi­cy­cles are called

ch )!” “Don’t be ridicu­lous. What on earth would you call a bi­cy­cle that? lit­er­ally means ‘ a ve­hi­cle that moves by it­self’!” I re­torted. Of course, I was wrong. There are many other ev­ery­day terms that are said dif­fer­ently in Chi­nese main­land, and one of the main rea­sons for this dis­par­ity could be due to the fact that most of the Chi­nese who left the main­land for Singapore decades ago were from Fu­jian prov­ince. Till today, many Chi­nese in Singapore, es­pe­cially those from the older gen­er­a­tions, speak the Hokkien di­alect in­stead of Man­darin.

This, cou­pled with the fact that Singapore is a multi-racial so­ci­ety of Chi­nese, Malays, In­di­ans, Eurasians and for­eign­ers, has in­her­ently re­sulted in a slight mu­ta­tion of our spo­ken Man­darin. Even the way Chi­nese ( ( main­lan­ders and Sin­ga­porean Chi­nese say the word “Chi­nese” is dif­fer­ent — the lat­ter re­fer to the lan­guage as ( ), while Sin­ga­pore­ans usu­ally call it (

). Apart from taxis, I’ve also man­aged to learn about “China Chi­nese” in cafes and restau­rants be­cause I love eat­ing, some­thing that can be con­sid­ered a na­tional pas­time in Singapore.

While at­tempt­ing to or­der a cup of soy milk from a cafe, I re­ferred to the drink as “”( ), which im­me­di­ately drew a gig­gle from the wait­ress. In Singapore, many peo­ple re­fer to soy milk by its Hokkien name — tau huey zui — which trans­lates to what I ut­tered in Man­darin. “It’s called ( ). sounds silly. It means ‘ soya bean wa­ter’,” laughed my col­league.

These days, I just try to keep my mouth shut. I also un­der­stand why many peo­ple com­plain that learn­ing Chi­nese is dif­fi­cult. Be­cause it re­ally is.

Trust me, I’m Chi­nese.

Con­tact the writer at aly­win@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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