Expats try their hand at decoding popular Chinese expressions
Foreigners who visit China are always impressed by the vast variety of local food and snacks. Chinese love to eat and the country boasts one of the world’s greatest food cultures. There is a famous Chinese saying that “min yi shi wei tian,” which literally means people regard food as heaven, showing how important the cuisine is in daily life here.
Chinese people often greet each other by asking “chi le ma?” (“Have you eaten?”) They don’t really expect you to answer that question; it’s just like asking “how are you?” Throughout history, Chinese have created many other phrases and idioms relating to food and eating, which sometimes confuses foreigners unfamiliar with a food-centric culture. The Global Times recently introduced some of these expressions to some foreigners in Shanghai to test their understanding of them.
1. 吃豆腐 chi dou fu
Literally meaning “eat bean curd (tofu).” But in fact it implies “to take advantage of men or women physically or verbally through actions bearing sexual connotations.” It relates to an old story of a young, female tofu shop owner with smooth and flawless skin who ate tofu all the time. The woman often flirts with male customers in order to sell them more tofu, and many men visited her shop frequently, pretending that they were there to “eat tofu” but in fact just wanted to gaze upon the lovely shop owner.
Yan Weiwei and Mu Anwei from Pakistan correctly guessed it meant to “take advantage of someone.” Sam from Pakistan also guessed right, saying “eating tofu is like when you’re using someone for your own purposes.” Marta from Italy was on the right track, guessing “eating tofu is somebody that is hitting on or touching somebody.”
Max from Kazakhstan said “eating tofu is when I’m trying to get the other man’s girl and he has to drink vinegar.”
Mike from the US guessed “this is quite a bad expression.”
2. 饭碗 fan wan
It literally translates to “rice bowl,” but in Chinese it also refers to a job which offers basic elements required to live. Iron rice bowl is more widely known, which means a job with stable income and benefits that are as solid as iron, usually positions at a State-owned company.
Yan Weiwei and Mu Anwei knew it meant “a stable job.”
Sam also guessed correctly that “it means stable employment.”
“It’s a thing which you order in a restaurant. Rice first, thanks. It’s wealthy, like a full bowl of money,” Max said.
3. 炒鱿鱼 chao you yu
“Fried squid” is the literal translation, but it also means being fired or sacked from a job. It was said in the old days that Chinese workers were provided with lodging by their employer but had to prepare their own bedding. When an employee was fired, he or she would have to roll up their blankets. People also noticed that squids would curl up when fried, sharing a similarity with rolled-up bedding. As a result, fried squid was used to refer to being fired. Yan Weiwei and Mu Anwei knew “it means being fired.” Sam also figured out that it means to “lose one’s job.” Max likewise guessed correctly that “it means to get fired at the job.” Marta also knew that “they fired you at work.”
4. 吃醋 chi cu
Literally, it means “drink vinegar.” There’s an anecdote that in the Tang Dynasty (618–907) there was once a powerful and capable official. One day the emperor sent him a young and beautiful girl to be his concubine. However, the official’s wife was strongly against it. To test the wife’s love and courage, the emperor told her either to accept her husband’s concubine or drink poison. She preferred the poison. The emperor was impressed and agreed not to give her husband another woman. Today it means to be jealous.
Yan Wewei and Mu Anwei once again guessed correctly that “it’s about boyfriends and girlfriends getting jealous.” Sam said “it’s kind of like jealousy.” Andrea from Italy also knew that “drinking vinegar means to be jealous about your boyfriend or girlfriend.” Marta said “to be jealous.” “It’s to be jealous when someone is trying to get my girl. I’m getting jealous while I’m drinking all my vinegar that I have at home,” Max guessed. Mike said “this is to accept a situation you don’t really like or that is embarrassing or uncomfortable.”
5. 吃官司 chi guan si
Literally it means “eat a lawsuit” and it can be explained as “suing or being sued by someone.” “I’m hearing it for the first time. Maybe it’s like when I’m in court or something,” said Max.
Other interviewees said they had no idea what it means.
6.吃闭门羹 chi bi men geng
Literally it means “eat the closed door soup,” which refers to being refused entrance. “It’s like when I go to a shop and the door is closed. Then I need to eat soup. [I call] Come on, open the door!” Max guessed. This term was also hard for our other interviewees.
7. 吃土 chi tu
Literally it means “eat dirt” and it can be explained as being short of money. This phrase gained popularity in 2015 during Single’s Day on November 11. Many people complained on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog, that they had spent so much money buying clothes and other useless stuff that they could only afford to eat dirt in the coming month.
“It’s like when I don’t have any money. I’m too poor and I eat dirt instead of rice,” Max said.
Yan Wewei and Mu Anwei simply said “loss.” Andrea guessed “maybe losing.” “I think this will be something quite bad,” Mike noted.