Posts Tagged ‘Mandarin bloopers’

Why Mandarin tones and pronunication are important

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , ,
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If you’re new to learning Mandarin you may wonder whether putting effort into Mandarin’s crazy tones are all that important. Your teacher might give you plenty of pronunciation and tone exercises and really drill you a lot on your pronunciation. If you’re lucky you may even feel your stomach muscles tighten as you’re getting a good work-out drilling those ch,zh and sh sounds. (I’m not really kidding.) Unfortunately pronunciation is important too.

I have a little story to tell you and yes this actually happened. During an introduction.

Below follows a conversation I’d like to share with you:

Chinese lady: “你叫什么名字?”
Laowai (with rusty Mandarin): “我叫 Fu Yi Tian”
Chinese lady: “哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈” / Hahhahahaha. (Gives no explanation for laughing.)

Twenty minutes pass and a group of Chinese ladies joins us.

Chinese lady (points to Laowai): “这是Fu Yi Dian”
Other Chinese ladies: “哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈”

My Mandarin is less rusty and as I’ve picked up on *some* of the tone and pronunciation miscommunications issues so I decide to speak next and clarify:

Peckish: “他的名字是福一田。 Like ‘Good fortune – one field’.”

Chinese lady: “Oh 哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈!
I thought it was 付一点 Fu Yi Dian like ‘pay a little money’.”

Everybody: “哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈哈!”

Stingy bastard.

Oh dear.

Did I also mention that it’s really important that you also really really really love Mandarin? ;)

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sums up how I feel about Mandarin

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , ,
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Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore this language and I love every waking moment I can dedicate to it.

However – former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd one of my greatest Australian heroes – sums up – so perfectly – how I (often) feel about learning Chinese. Recently a video was leaked onto YouTube that shows him preparing a speech in Mandarin while he was still in government. (The video shows his reactions as he listens to several recording attempts of his speech). Excuse the profanities please. He’s clearly very frustrated with himself – no need to analyse this one too intensely. It’s kind of obvious.

As one could expect, Kevin Rudd was heavily criticized by the media but in my opinion what I see is a pretty mild (and very normal) frustrated reaction – that of a person actually required to use the language for diplomatic impact and influence. A bit of swearing yes… fair enough – but he’s just human after all and gets frustrated just like the rest of us. No one is perfect. Have a look and share your thoughts if you wish.

(PS: This is old news by now but in the last month there’s been ongoing tit-for-tat in the Australian labour party particularly involving the video below, so for more information to see how this video clip relates, read this article ‘Australia Power Struggle Erupts Onto YouTube‘. As I mentioned a pretty mild reaction in my mind but the media somehow always has a way of making things appear worse than they are.)



As you were perhaps not able to get a taste of Kevin Rudd’s humor nor Mandarin skills from the video above, I suggest you have a look at this second video if you’re interested:



What’s in a Chinese name?

peckishlaowai Posted in China,Tags: , ,
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To name and how to name: those are the questions

Before you choose a Chinese name it’s probably a good idea to understand how you might use it in China – and when and how it would be useful to have a Chinese name. As far as I am concerned, these are some of the reasons you should consider getting a Chinese name:

  • You’ll often find yourself in situations where Chinese people ask you if you have a Chinese name – thus probably good for general conversation.
  • Pronunciation difficulties for Chinese: offering a Chinese equivalent could be helpful to Chinese that have difficulty pronouncing difficult or unusual English or other Western names.
  • If you have a business card, typically you’d have one side in English and the other side in Chinese showing your Chinese name. I guess this is a must-have in China. (Apparently having an auspicious name is even better for generating business leads.)
  • Having a Chinese name at least shows you are interested in their culture and that you’ve gone to some effort to obtain a name in a format familiar to them.

Way back in 2007 before I went to China I got a Chinese name. I did everything I should have – I had it checked and prepared by my Chinese University professor – a native speaker from Taiwan. She presented two or three options to me and I made my choice. I did think the name unusual at the time but since I didn’t know much about Chinese names to begin with, I didn’t question the name at all. I just went with it.

These were two of my choices with the surname first 富爱美 and 富爱梅。 They translate as such:
富爱美 – Good fortune, abundance, wealth / Love / Beautiful
富爱梅 – Good fortune, abundance, wealth / Love / Plum

I chose the first one: 富爱美
(Some background – all three characters “closely” match the sounds in my Western name.)

You’re probably laughing at me right now – that’s ok by me – it’s happened many times before, in fact my Chinese name always seems to amuse Chinese people or have them laugh at me. (I haven’t tried it on foreigners yet – this is a first.)

I’ll share with you some of the responses I’ve had:
Scenario 1:
I’m standing in class with my students in Nanjing, and am asked by one of the students what my Chinese name is. “富爱美” I reply. Class laughs. I think to myself “something’s wrong with my Chinese name” and I’m a bit too embarrassed to ask them why they’re laughing.

Scenario 2:
Chinese tutor (40 year old woman)also an educated University teacher in Nanjing asks me my Chinese name. ‘富爱美’ I reply. She laughs. “What’s wrong with it?”, I ask.

She replies”我的妈妈喜欢这个名子。 我不喜欢这个名子”. Great – it’s old-fashioned I think to myself.

Scenario 3:
I share my name with another professor at university. Yip you guessed it – he laughs too. “Ah you want to be wealthy, and you love to be beautiful or love beautiful things”. Great I think to myself – I sound superficial. I should get this name thing fixed.

Scenario 4:
I share my name with a Chinese guy from Australia – he laughs too. He says – “Ah, awesome, it’s like you want to embody all of the most superficial things in life, you want to be rich and you love beautiful things or you want to be beautiful. Awesome”.

Strange – I kind of thought this name would sit well with most modern Chinese ambitions – aren’t these the things that most people (not just Chinese) aspire to?

Where does this leave me though? I probably need to rethink my Chinese name – a few years down the line and I’d like to believe that I’m a bit wiser… There’s no hurry though but I thought I’d share with you my experience in getting and using a Chinese name.

Thus dear readers – I have a few questions for you:

  • Have you ever had any issues with your Chinese name? How do Chinese people react to it?
  • Does having a Chinese name, make you feel more integrated or not? Is having a Chinese name useful to you?
  • When Chinese friends learn your Chinese name, do they call you by that name or do they use use your Western name?
  • What about you – do you think my Chinese name is silly too? :) – you can be honest!

Do let me know please – share your thoughts with me. :)

The ups and downs of tīng bù dǒng moments

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , ,
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‘Tīng bù dǒng’ or 听不懂 – the most comforting phrase I know in Mandarin Chinese – yet the one I despise the most. The phrase I always revert to when my listening skills have failed me – failed me completely with the most basic of sentences.

This “safe” phrase – is one that has the power to crush a Mandarin conversation right there and then – that is IF you let your confidence and emotions control you rather than you being in control of the situation.

Earlier this week I went to the corner shop and I bought a few things. The lǎobǎn (老板) of this particular shop, knows that I can speak a little Chinese and as I was paying for the things I bought he said something in Mandarin to me. I wasn’t quite prepared for what he had to say and I realized that what he had said had been too fast – I had caught NONE of it. My automatic response as you can gather from the title of this post had been ‘tīng bù dǒng’. I asked the him to repeat what he had said and the second time I at least caught the whole sentence and focused on some of the key words but I still had NO context – I actually had no idea what he had said to me. Also, I had not initiated the conversation on this occasion so I guess this didn’t help the situation either.

At this point I switched to English, and asked him to explain what he had said in English. He gave me a brief but helpful run-down. It turned out he was saying ‘wǒ yī yuè huí guó.’ (我 一月回国 / I’ll return to my country in January). I mean honestly – seriously – it’s a five word sentence and it’s all stuff that I know – something I reckon I know how to say in my sleep. I am so embarrassed that I still find myself in a ‘ting bu dong’ boat like this with Mandarin stuff that I ALREADY KNOW – have known for quite a while. I’ve passed (written) exams on this???

The only difference and real improvement I’ve shown is I guess how I handled the situation – in the past I would normally have used the ‘ting bu dong’ phrase to END the conversation as I’d normally feel overwhelmed (like an idiot) and I would have wanted to get away from the akward situation.

Now I still have my ‘听不懂’ moments but my aim is to try and stay CALM – ask questions to understand (even if it is in English), ask them to repeat and I try not to feel like an idiot (at least not too much).

I stick around too to practice some Mandarin afterwards and after all of this the person I’m speaking would normally be very surprised that I can actually string a few words together to form a beautiful Mandarin sentence. I’ll admit – it’s at moments like these when I see them slightly surprised – that I feel just a teensy bit satisfied with myself.

Sometimes studying Mandarin feels like a lost case and other times it is the most rewarding journey ever. I honestly hate the fact that I get flustered and have to say ‘ting bu dong’ when my listening skills and ability is poor. Other times I revel in the fact that I learned one crucial important word to use in the language or the fact that I am still progressing in Heisig.

Ah Mandarin – what a roller-coaster ride you give me…

Useful vocab?

Roller coaster: 过山车 / guòshānchē
听不懂 / ‘Tīng bù dǒng’ (literally listen not understand)
lǎobǎn (老板) = boss; shopkeeper; proprietor

What’s the worst that can happen?

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: ,
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Tomatoes fānqié 番茄 / xīhóngshì 西红柿

Tomatoes: fānqié 番茄 / xīhóngshì 西红柿 - I think I'll take Kit Kat next time...

The comments in the last post ‘Accidental conversations in Mandarin’ inspired the post for this week ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ when having/starting conversations in Mandarin – a question posed to me by Greg from Mandarin Segments.

In my last post I also mentioned that I met a Chinese lady on the bus who offered to lend me some of her daughter’s Chinese books and I got a chance to meet up with her yesterday. I also promised myself that I’d be better prepared mentally to have an actual conversation with her in Mandarin at our next meet-up and I think I was actually slightly better prepared… progress… I have also tried my first Dr Pepper… literally…

If you’re not familiar with the Dr Pepper ads then here they are: brilliant – have a laugh before you continue on with my lengthy post – sorry I know I take a while before I get to my point!


Now that you’ve had a laugh, I’ll tell you how my visit went to my new Chinese acquaintance and I’d like give an answer to the question / statement: “Have a Mandarin conversation – what’s the worst that can happen?”.

Right. A few things apparently :)

1) You can forget your manners – leaving out ‘qing wen’ when asking someone’s name in Mandarin can have somewhat serious cultural implications – especially when people are older than you are. I was corrected and gently told that Chinese people use ‘qing wen’ when asking names instead of just asking ‘Ni jiao shenme?’. I mean I know this and I know it pays to be polite – and by NZ standards I’m always far too polite. In this instance, I wasn’t at all intending to be impolite – I guess I came over as abrupt and hence impolite. I think I just had a more casual approach in mind. Kind of like ‘I’m called [name]. What’s your name?’ Terrible of me? I don’t know but felt really bad for a few minutes then decided to get on with it and impress them with my sparkly personality and good humour :)

2) You can misunderstand a question, give an answer and inadvertently without intending to do so – tell a lie…

Knowing that I’m never supposed to go empty–handed to a Chinese person’s home when I visit them – I took a humble gift of vine tomatoes and avocados.

I’m not too sure what happened but when I was asked a question about the tomatoes I answered yes – realizing the moment I had replied that I had in fact lied – that I had confirmed that I had been growing the tomatoes myself (which I haven’t done). The tomatoes I gave as a gift were ones I bought but I also do grow tomatoes myself. So this confusion made me a liar – the Chinese lady was so happy and excited about these lovely big tomatoes I had “grown myself” that I felt the timing wasn’t right to correct her about it. It being insignificant in the bigger scheme of things – I left it at that – I mean small white lie right and completely unintentional? When she later showed the tomatoes to her husband and told him that I had grown the tomatoes myself – he was in awe too – and my immediate reaction was to steer the subject in another direction because I couldn’t look her husband in the eyes and misrepresent my tomato growing skills, neither was I ready to deny at this point in time what I should have denied / corrected sooner. Next time I’ll take some Kit Kat or something other with – anything I can’t possibly have grown myself. I am an idiot … most of the time…

Besides me showing the tendencies / initial symptoms of being a habitual liar and forgetting my manners, overall I thought the visit went well, we chatted for 2 hours – way longer than the quick visit I anticipated it to be. Some of the conversation was in Mandarin and most of it in English. It was enjoyable and I walked home with a big smile on my face as I felt so happy to have met these wonderful people.

What will I do next time about the tomatoes if they ask me again? 我不知道。

I feel like this experience of coming over as impolite and “lying” is almost worse than “my most embarrassing Mandarin moment to date” – I guess I actually feel like I’m a bad person…

As for point 1 – knowing about potential pitfalls, cultural sensitivities and the like is important and I think language should never be studied in isolation of a culture.

As for point 2 – well heck I should just improve my listening skills and react faster I think.

Have you ever gotten yourself into a predicament when you tried to put your best Mandarin foot forward and it didn’t quite have the desired outcome? I’m talking about specific situations e.g. misunderstandings like getting tones wrong and telling your best friend you like his mother instead of his horse? Embarrassing or odd stuff like that. What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Have you ever been or felt like an idiot yourself?

For those of you have commented before – thank you :) – I love hearing your thoughts. I’m hoping I’ll hear from you again. If you haven’t commented yet – you have an invitation :)

If you’ve got a good link to share – please share that in the comments too – 谢谢你!

Useful phrases?

Did you have a good weekend?
    Pinyin: Nǐde zhōumò hǎo ma?
    Simplified: 你的周末好吗?
    Literal translation: Your weekend good +question word

Have a good weekend!
    Pinyin: Zhù nǐ zhōumò yúkuài!
    Simplified: 祝你周末愉快!
    Literal translation: Wish you weekend happy!

I am going to Singapore in the near future.
    Simplified: 我最近要到新加坡去
    Pinyin: Wo3 zui4jin4 yao4 dao4 Xin1jia1po1 qu4.
    Literal translation: I near future will to Singapore go.

What are you interested in?
    Pinyin: Ni 3 dui4 shen2me you3 xing4qu4?
    Simplified:你对什么有兴趣?

  I am interested in learning Mandarin.
   Pinyin: Wo3 dui4 xue2 zhong1wen2 you3 xing4qu4.
    Simplified:我对学中文有兴趣。

He is not interested in cooking.
    Pinyin: Ta1 dui4 zuo4 cai4 mei2you xing4qu4.
    Simplified:他对做菜没有兴趣。

Useful vocab:

Tomatoes – 2 options:
    Pinyin: fānqié OR xīhóngshì.
    Simplified: 番茄 / 西红柿

For an explanation on when to use which one please see this answer
In what dialects does Chinese use the word 西红柿 (xihongshi) versus 番茄 (fanqie) for tomato?”

My most embarrassing Mandarin moment to date:

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: ,
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I had a mildly embarrassing moment earlier this week when a native Chinese speaker told me (although gently) to differentiate between Mandarin and Cantonese. I tend to forget about Cantonese when I speak about Chinese. Narrow-minded of me, I know… This little incident made me think of other embarrassing moments I’ve had in my Mandarin adventures…

Back in 2006 when I started studying Mandarin I was really eager to use what little Mandarin I could speak with well – anybody that would care to lend me their ears. Receivers at the other end were mostly Chinese waiters and shop owners who would need to listen to my Mandarin attempts as I stumbled my way through some basic and awkward blurbs.

My most embarrassing moment though didn’t involve a waiter no. Instead, it involved a new acquaintance who met up with us while we spent some time holidaying in Durban, South Africa. A colleague of mine had arranged a native Mandarin speaker friend of hers to entertain us for dinner so that I could practice my Mandarin. I was super excited. We’ll call the lucky listener of this most embarassing day ‘Adam’.

During dinner with our new acquaintance Adam, I was using a silly example sentence – “I see you” / “wo kan ni” as I was talking about sentence structure in Mandarin.

Except that I perhaps said it rather loudly in a crowded, noisy restaurant and interpreted the look on Adam’s face as him not quite getting what I was saying. This was pretty basic stuff, but my immediate thoughts were to think that my Mandarin was either terribly poor or that he could not hear me above the noise, so I repeated what I said at least two times. By this time our new acquaintance was looking rather wildly around the room, and then lowered his voice and said to me “you’re swearing – please keep it down”. It took me a second or two to realize what he had heard – he had heard ‘gan’ in the fourth tone. If you substitute ‘kan’ in the fourth tone with ‘gan’ in the fourth tone and look up the meaning of that word – you can get a sense of the kind of embarrassment I felt when this had happened.

I tried to explain afterwards to Adam that I was really trying to say ‘kan’ and not ‘gan’ but it was just an awkward situation and to be honest I think I tried mentally blocking out the rest of the evening as a result. Needless to say we didn’t speak much Mandarin after that and the follow-up appointment we were supposed to have the next day, never happened – no cancellation text – no nothing. Yes, this was indeed the most embarrassing Mandarin moment for me.

You could probably make me feel better by sharing your embarrassing stories with me…