Confessions of a Chinese Language Student

36 Comments
Distractions

Chinese is a really difficult and frustrating language to learn, but it always helps to laugh at yourself to get you through the process.

My confessions 我的自白:

Injuries

  • I have, in frustration, banged my head against my Chinese textbooks.
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve ruined my eyesight by staring at Chinese characters for too long.
  • I once got frost nip on my toes from studying for too long in my unheated Chinese apartment.

Tones

  • If you ask me for a “beizi” and there is a cup 杯子 bēizi and a blanket 被子 bèizi on the table, I won’t know which one to give you.
  • When I’m sick, I ask my friends to bring me soup 汤 tāng, but they always bring me candy 糖 táng instead and then tell me I should eat something healthier.
  • One time I told a friend we would have camels feet at my wedding but when I said 骆蹄 脚 luòtí jiǎo, he heard nude photos 裸体照 luǒtǐzhào. I think he was disappointed when I clarified.

Spoonerisms

  • About 80% of the time I tell people I like to eat bees 蜜蜂 mìfēng on my mántou 馒头, but what I really mean is honey 蜂蜜 fēngmì.
  • Sometimes when I say I want to eat pineapple 菠萝bōluó, I really mean carrots (radish) 萝卜 luóbo. My husband always buys both for me just in case.
  • I once ordered a butt 屁股pìgu in a restaurant but I really wanted a pineapple beer 果啤guǒpí. The waiter got angry.

Characters

  • I’m proud to write my characters like an elementary school student. I think my writing is neat and clear. I can’t read what Chinese people write.
  • I feel both relieved and frustrated when Chinese people forget how to write a character. Relieved because even Chinese people think their language is hard too, but frustrated because if Chinese people can’t remember how to write the characters what hope do I have?
  • When people draw a character on my hand, I really have no idea what character they are writing but I usually pretend that I do.
  • I learned how to read Chinese characters by text messaging on my cell phone. Same with Pinying.

Measure words

I once had a test on measure words and filled in half the blanks with 个gè.

For example: 一____公园

My Chinese boyfriend said I was right “一个公园,” my Chinese teacher said I was wrong “一座公园.” I told my Chinese teacher people didn’t really talk like that but he didn’t change my grade.

Random

  • I often tell Chinese people their language is stupid.
  • I speak to my pets in Chinese even when no one else is around.
  • I think Chinese is sexy.
  • I sometimes let people assume that I don’t speak Chinese just so I can listen to what they have to say about me.
  • I can understand it when other foreigners speak Chinese even if Chinese people can’t.
  • Sometimes when people ask me what I ate, I insult them bastard 混蛋 húndàn instead of saying wonton soup 馄饨 húndún.
  • My Chinese teachers never taught in English. They made fun of my Chinese so I made fun of their English, they never used English in class again.
  • Chinese has ruined my English. I now say weird things in English like “uncomfortable” 不太舒服 bùtài shūfu when I’m sick and “eating” medicine 吃药chīyào.
  • I want to crawl under a rock/cry/punch someone when I speak Chinese to Chinese person and he/she replies back “I’m sorry I don’t speak English.”
  • I reply in Chinese when people speak English to me and I don’t even realize it.
  • If I don’t understand something, I will ask for clarification, but if I still don’t understand the second time, I’ll pretend that I do just to save face.
  • My classmate once told me the best way to learn Chinese was to get a Chinese boyfriend. It turns out it really is the best way.
  • Through the process of learning Chinese in China, I’ve become a master of charades.

Talk on Confessions of a Chinese Language Student


36 Comments
  1. Looks like Ericka hit the nail on the coffin with this one. Excellent post. I might also add that on one occasion I have asked for a blowjob (口交) when wanting a mask (口罩)

  2. Once in a small Xinjiang restaurant I shouted at the waitress: 小姐, 有病吗?(are you insane?) when i clearly meant: 有饼吗? ( do you hame more of those delicious “nan” bread?). She got angry.

    And lets not forget the distressed taxi driver, when in a very slow taxi drive on a jam-packed street I innocently suggested to my Chinese friend: ” 那么堵车, 不好打车, 我们应该大飞机。。。“

    Intended meaning – The traffic is so heavy, we shouldn’t have taken a taxi, only taking a plane could work.”

    Real meaning – “The traffic is so heavy, we shouldn’t have taken a taxi. We should have masturbated.”

    I also remember harassing the post office clerks near by BLCU, because I never had a pen on me to write the address on the envelopes I wanted to post. I used to go to them and ask-” 请问, 你有笔吗?“ but my “bi” was not in the right tone…. (blushing)

  3. Being in a program where we literally only speak Chinese (to teachers, to each other, etc. all the durned time) these sorts of things happen all the time. Especially the spoonerisms.
    I was trying to tell my teacher today that “If you drive drunk, you will probably have an accident” but what came out was “If you drive drunk, you will probably have a story” mixed up 故事 and 事故. I went on to try and justify my original sentence, to no avail.

  4. I completely empathize with you. I’m still a relative beginner in studying Chinese and sometimes wonder why I put myself through it. I can’t wait for the day when my conversations are more than “多少錢?”

  5. Profile photo of

    ROTFL! Went through this saying, “check. yup. been there. omfg yes…”

    Great to know I’m not alone.

    Though the worst thing I ever did for my Chinese was get a Chinese girlfriend (who could speak English). I think you need the “who speaks no English” as a caveat on that one.

    I’m proud to write my characters like an elementary school student. I think my writing is neat and clear. I can’t read what Chinese people write.

    Damn skippy.

  6. Hilarious !

    “Sometimes when I say I want to eat carrots 萝卜luóbo, I really mean pineapple 菠萝bōluó. My husband always buys both for me just in case.”
    LOL btw carrots is 胡萝卜, 萝卜 itslef is radish.

    “One time I told a friend we would have camels feet at my wedding but when I said 骆蹄 脚 luòtí jiǎo, he heard nude photos 裸体照 luǒtǐzhào. I think he was disappointed when I clarified.”

    LOL Cameltoe! you are not that far off..

  7. Great post!
    @Ben Ross: I had a similar experience. I actually knew 口交 before 口罩 and when a student was pointed at her mouth and asking if I had a 口罩 today because it was cold…I was pretty confused. (i may have actually blushed.)

    Another good one was when I kept repeating 屌头 to my taxi driver because I had remembered the ‘diao’ in 掉头 as third tone. Good times.

  8. The list of risqué assonances in chinese truly is endless.
    One of the many times I forgot my umbrella I went back complaining about my head being 弱智 and adding that I had already lost several umbrellas 已经丢了几把 but I forgot to add 伞.
    真J8丢脸.

  9. As a student currently studying in Hohhot, thank you for giving me hope, now I just need a Chinese boyfriend… Great post.

  10. Wow, it really is great to know that we all have company in our futile atttempts at learning the language!!!

    I would second Ryan’s comment on making sure that your significant other doesn’t speak much English. Whenever my girlfriend (a Chinese-American who is fluent in both Mandarin and English) go anywhere in China they immedietly speak to her. Especially after I try and fail. Also, I get a touch shy speaking Chinese around her so I tend not to. Whenever I want to practice I have to go someplace without her.

  11. Excellent post, I can relate to so much of it.

    One time – for no apparent reason – I got 阴茎 (penis) and 苍蝇 (fly) confused and embarrased myself. Now even though I know them well I can’t use either word without pausing and double-checking.

    I was fortunate enough to have a Chinese girlfriend for some time, but it wasn’t much of a help. She quite understandably lacked the patience to have the sort of boring and repetitive conversations I could sustain in Chinese day in and day out. I’ll never forget how to say “猪头” though.

  12. Profile photo of Ericka

    I’m starting to see a pattern on the chinese girlfriend comments. I think my husband can relate, his english hasn’t improved too much since we’ve been together. We started out speaking English but when we went to his hometown, he said it felt too weird speaking english there so we started speaking chinese and it kind of stuck.

    @Silvia I love the 饼 story!

    @ChinaHush my chinese wasn’t very good when I had the 菠萝,萝卜 issue, I really wanted carrots but still said 萝卜。Same with the camels foot, it should just be 骆蹄 but to clarify I pointed to my foot and said 脚。

    @Alberto P I have a similar story with chicken 吃鸡吧

  13. So funny, but through that I know you are all working hard to learn Chinese. As a Chinese people, I feel very proud. But tell you the truth, when Chinese people learn English, also feel very frustration. Some of your sound is very difficult to pronounce. I was very shy when I firstly started to learn English. I’m not very confident to say or talk about something in public. After I listened and listened, I begin to guess what are they talking about through some key words. I’m working in an international school. The first day, just terrible. When I talk with children, I should use English unless it’s the Chinese lesson time. When I use the computer, all English language. I feel I even don’t know how to use computer to checking the E-mail. At the end of the day, we have a meeing. Still all English language. When I ‘m taking the bus home heard someone is talking, I just feel strange why that old Chinese person on the bus can speak English so well. After I getting off the bus, I realized that the old person is speaking Chinese use another place’s accent. Another time, a foreign teacher tell me Jacky got chickenpox. when I heard “chicken”, I think that means Jacky get chicken to eat for lunch. So I’m going to look for Jacky’s school bag. But Jacky was not at school in fact. Sometimes, I will ask children use the “tissue” to clean their mouth, but as I pronounce is “T-shirt”. Till now I still will make mistakes, but I’m not afraid any more.
    Sometimes, Chinese people will forget how to write the characters, that’s true. Because our characters are very complicated. that’s not excuse. Your characters are combined from the 26 alphabet, ours are differently. Sometimes, you even just lose one stroke, it will change to be another word with different meaning. And also we longtime use the computer to type the characters with pinyin sound, but not use a pen to write by ourself, that’s another reason. Also if you don’t have good education background.

  14. Profile photo of Matt

    Great post and comments! Even in languages far closer to English this happens. My misadventures in learning Italian some years ago were numerous- I once, when holding a cigarette, asked a passerby for an elevator (ascensore) rather than a lighter (accendino). Another time, when asked where I was sleeping, I replied ‘in the female student’ (alla studentessa) rather than ‘in the dormitory’ (allo studentatto). Yikes.

    I tip my cap to Chinese people, too. I generally don’t know tones so usually just guess, and I often take Magellan-like routes to get to my point when speaking Mandarin. The vast, vast majority of Chinese people I encounter patiently discern my meaning and compliment me on my Chinese…I hope I’d do the same to people who approach me with less-than-perfect English.

  15. I often take Magellan-like routes to get to my point when speaking Mandarin. The vast, vast majority of Chinese people I encounter patiently discern my meaning and compliment me on my Chinese

    Having recently finished trekking around China’s tourist spots on my own (sans Chinese-speaking wife) I got thinking about this. You really have to give the Chinese on a whole a helluva lot of credit in this regard. I routinely butcher their language and the vast majority are patient and good-humoured about it, even in high-pressure situations.

    Most definitely the same cannot be said about my compatriots back home in Canada. God forbid you have an accent or broken English that requires a clerk, a customer, or anyone, to have to begin to consider that vanilla-English might creep into their lives.

    @Annie: We all sympathize, truly.

  16. I wrote an article a while back on seven reasons to learn Chinese, number 4 was “you love pain.” Which apparently I do because I keep on keeping on.

    I definitely agree that Chinese are generally amazing about putting up with my savaging of their language — were it not for their goodwill and patience I would probably be living in a ditch outside the 5th ring road.

  17. HILARIOUS! Finally we hear from a foreign girl who married a Chinese man. Look forward to more posts from you ERICKA!! My wife always gets tomato and potato mixed up in English. I don’t have a problem with that in Chinese… but the carrots and pineapple thing I still can’t get straight!!!

  18. Bees on Mantou haha!
    I sometimes have difficulty with words ending in an -n sound or -ng e.g 船, 床 and 关 ,光. Most recently
    阿姨: 丹妮想吃什么?
    Me: “鸡肛”
    She had a chuckle and luckily she knew I meant liver (肝).

  19. I would agree with sooooo many of these!
    My wife speaks excellent English… at home we speak mostly Chinese (English when I get frustrated)… but when we go to the in-laws it’s all local dialect… which means I have to do my best with “pu tong hua” and hope I can understand the rest!

  20. Profile photo of Ericka

    @Nathan I understand completely about the in-laws! I’m lucky that Shandonghua is close to Mandarin, but still. It’s so frustrating when you think you finally have a grasp on the chinese language and then you can’t even talk to your chinese in-laws!

  21. Confessions of an English language students…

    I learned the word “bitch”, then sometime later I learned the word “beach”. At that time I thought beach is pronounced in the exact same way as bitch, so I said to a female friend “let’s go bitch!” when I wanted to ask her to come to the beach…..

    Also at that time I pronounced the word “sheet” like “shit”. And I asked the teacher if he can give me the work*sheet* that he handed out to the class when I was away…..

    Sometimes my pronounciation of “cook” sounds a bit like “cock”…..”you’re a good cock”, “i like to cock”…

    I didn’t know the alternate meaning to the words “nuts” (I like eating nuts) and “balls” (I play with my balls at home)…..

    On numerous occasions I got “slug” and “slut” mixed up…..”oh there’s a slut on my body”, “do sluts bite?”, “why are sluts so wet?”…

  22. Pingback: Giving Thanks To China | Lost Laowai China Blog

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  24. Hahaha… I totally feel you on all the things you say! I’ve done about most of them, except for the 裸体照 one. I’ve done 密封 and 蜂蜜 too many times. I used to say 阳台 instead of 太阳。 The 果皮 and 屁股 was classic!! haha.

    At least you guys don’t have like the one that happend to my buddy, he went to a restaurant and asked “小姐: 一个睡觉多少钱?” (prostitue, how much for one night (sleep)?) when he wanted to ask “服务员,一盘水饺多少钱?” (Waitress, how much for a dish of dumplings?) I think the waitress was cool about it though, but no one could figure out why she got so red until our Chinese friend explained. haha.

    Oh, this makes me really miss China :’-(

  25. Excellent post!!! I think that really is the most interesting part of learning the Chinese language. It can be really complicated when you have 20 different characters for the character “guo”.

    It seems like a million times that I have known exactly what I wanted to say, already knew the tones and kept on repeating myself over and over again. I guess my accent isn’t as good as it sounds in my head.

  26. I’m about to embark on my first Chinese language class. Not prepared at all. I have some Chinese friends that, when they try to teach me a word, over their ears and complain that I’m butchering their language. Oh my.

  27. Several years ago I was out with my Chinese colleagues in a Nanjing restaurant when I asked what kind of 猪食 (pig food) we should we order with our main courses when I meant 主食 (staple food; rice or noodles) .. they all cracked up instantly.

  28. This is absolutely awesome to hear your story about learning Mandarin!

    I am also going to study Mandarin in the future.

    Can you recommend any good learning institutions for a newcomer?

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