My constant tango with the Chinese lingo
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 firstname.lastname@example.org