The Words that Linger

Gina Butz culture 1 Comment

photo by Gina Butz

People often ask me if I am fluent in Mandarin. The short answer is “no.” To me, fluency means “I can say everything in that language” by which definition all those people who say they are fluent in Spanish after their 4 years of high school classes are mistaken.

I cannot say many things in Mandarin, like ceiling or fertilizer or thumb tack. Never needed to. But I would call myself “functionally fluent” which means I could talk about that wall above me, or the stuff to put on the ground to make the plants grow, or a small thing to make my paper hang on the wall. I am a master at talking around the word I don’t know, like a linguist game of $10,000 Pyramid.

Despite my lack of fluency, there are certain words that I adopted during our time overseas which I may never lose, as they have become part of my vocabulary. I thought I’d take the time to share them today, just for fun. And they are:

加油:(pronounced ‘jah yo’) This literally means ‘add oil.’ It’s the Chinese way of cheering people on. Like ‘you’re competing in the Olympics? 加油!’ or ‘Your husband is gone for how long? Bummer. ‘加油!’ (you can guess which of those applies to me).

不好意思: (boo how ee suh) We were taught this means ’embarrassed’ but it’s more than that. It’s the catch all word for ‘this situation is awkward for me, and probably for you too.’ There were lots of ‘bu hao yi si’ moments overseas. I seem to have them here too.

麻烦: (mah fahn) Ah, ‘mafan.’ Maybe my favorite word. It means ‘inconvenient’ or ‘troublesome’ but saying those long words is too mafan, so we say this.

那个谁: (ney guh shay) This is the colloquial way to say, ‘What’s his face.’

厉害: (lee high) Ah, ‘lihai.’ There’s just no English equivalent. It means ‘intense’ or ‘serious’ or ‘powerful’ but in a good, striving for excellence kind of way. Like, ‘he studies 6 hours a night? Wah, he’s so lihai!” said with admiration.

就是这样: (jiew sure jay yahng) ‘That’s just the way it is.’ Like when you finish cutting your husband’s hair and know that’s the best you’re going to do, you say, ‘jiu shi zhe yang.’

快点儿: (kw-eye dee ar) As parents, we often employ the phrase ‘hurry up.’ I prefer to use the Chinese version, “kuai dianr!” (with my best northern accent, adding r to the end). My kids always respond, “I’m kuai dianr-ing!!” They’re just as annoyed with it in Chinese as in English, maybe more so.

These are some of the ones that linger. They tend to come out in conversation here, even with those who don’t understand, but now that you know them you can join in with me!


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