Gaffes with Mandarin

I went to order breakfast and, armed with my new knowledge of Mandarin, I decided that I would order in the local language today.  Oh how impressed everyone was going to be!  I was supremely confident, and after rehearsing in my head, I walked up and said, “Wǒ xiǎng wěi yú dàn pián.”

She looked at me confused.  I repeated a bit louder, “Wǒ xiǎng wěi yú dàn pián.”

Now the customers were looking at me.  It was obvious that I was saying something wrong, but I had no idea what.  My confidence faltered, so after a few more mousy attempts (and stares) I gave up and pointed at a picture of what I wanted.

“Ok” she smiled, and turned away chattering to her co-worker.  They then started laughing, and I felt like a fool.  I had to get to the bottom of this, so I brought it up with my class.  Turns out I was asking for “Tuna egg poop”.

Here’s what I thought I was saying:

Wǒ xiǎng wěi yú dàn bing = I would like a tuna and egg pancake.

What I actually said:

Wǒ xiǎng wěi yú dàn pián = I would like some tuna egg poop.

To my untrained ear, they both sounded the same.  It’s now a running joke at that breakfast place that I like to eat tuna poop, but now I know “bing” is pancake and “pián” is poop.

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I was practising using the expression “like”.  I like this, I like that…etc.

In Mandarin, for food, you don’t just say you like “something”.  You include the verb “to eat”.  For example, I wouldn’t say “I like steak.”  I would say “I like to eat steak.”

I forgot this and tried to tell the waitress at a restaurant that I like fried rice.  Now, fried rice is “chǎofàn”.  But “chǎofàn” is also slang for “sex”.

So I said, “Wǒ (I) xǐhuan (like) chǎofàn (fried rice)” – which is perfectly acceptable in English, but can also mean “I like sex” in Mandarin.

I should have said “Wǒ (I) xǐhuan (like) chī (to eat) chǎofàn (fried rice)”.

Most Taiwanese are very shy (by western standards) when it comes to sex.  Especially in a small town.  To her credit, the waitress did not break out into embarrassed giggles but she did turn crimson, muttered something and high-tailed it.  Poor thing.  Needless to say she did not return. Another (male) waiter came by and took my order.

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This one is something I constantly heard when I first got here and it got to my racial sensibilities.

Mandarin uses a lot of  measure words.  We use them in English too, but I never realized it until until I started studying Mandarin.

“I’d like a cup of coffee” – “cup” (being the measure word) signifies how much coffee I want.

Since there are a lot more in Mandarin, they have a universal one – “ge”.  When referring to something, they say “this one” or “that one”.

The word for “that” is “na”.  So “that one” becomes “na ge” or more like “nei ge”.  They say this a lot…kind of like when we use “ummm” or “like” when we are linking ideas together.  Spoken fast and listened to by a western ear, it sounds like “nigger”.

So for the first little while, I was constantly hearing Taiwanese people saying “Nigger (garbled Mandarin)….nigger (more incomprehensible sounds)”.

I was certain that it didn’t mean what I thought it meant but still, hearing a word that is synonymous with racial discrimination does make you cringe everytime you hear it.  I mentioned this to the other foreign teachers, and it seems a lot of people go through this in their early time here.  Must be a shock for a black person when he or she first hears this.

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