The best thing about learning the language of a country you are living in is full immersion learning. Everyone is a potential teacher, and everything around you is your learning materials.

I really learned this lesson during a recent trip to Beijing. It was a weekend, and all the hostels were sold out so we were stuck staying at a low-end business hotel. You know, a sketchy place with smoke scented rugs; scuffed, cheap wood side tables; and a pile of prostitute cards at the door. Yes, that’s right, prostitute cards.

The size of business cards, with glossy full color pictures of “sexy” girls (some look like they were taken from a shoe catalog or something); these prostitute cards, or PC as I will refer to them from here on out, turned out to be good for a few minutes of laughing. With my poor Chinese I could read a few of the attributes of the ladies listed on the cards: campus beauty, movie stars, beautiful girls. I even busted out my dictionary to learn some new words like, grand (高贵) and elegant (典雅).

But one word left me stumped. It was on almost every single card and was 白领, which my dictionary translated as white neck. I was quite curious about this word. I mean, I’ve read Memoirs of a Geisha, so I know that a sexy white neck drives men wild in Japan, but China? I’ve never heard of it. So why was it on every single card? Obviously there was something lost in translation.

So we collected the cards and brought them all home with us. We ended up with a stack because every day we would get about 8-10, and we stayed for 3 nights. After our first day we wondered who the PC fairy was that delivered the cards. My husband thought maybe it was the girls as they left from a job, I guessed it was a big fat, chain smoking madam. We later learned we were both wrong as we got back early one night right as the prostitute fairy was delivering the cards. It was a few teen boys smoking, chatting and sliding them under the door.

So when I got home I showed the PC’s to my Chinese friend and asked him what it meant. Turns out white neck really means white collar. Like, the girls weren’t sex slaves working in an unjust system, but were white collar workers sitting behind a desk at a big corporation during the day and ho’ing around at night for the fun of it. (“But I don’t think that’s true,” my friend said.)

My friend also pointed out another interesting feature, something else I was unable to read. Some of the cards said that they could provide legitimate receipts for the gov’t and corporate workers so the businessman could get reimbursed. I guess the average cash stipend doesn’t cover a little late night nookie delivery?

Just so you know, prostitution is technically illegal in China. It’s not Vegas over here or anything, but it is an open secret that in business hotels there are girls at your beck and call. In fact another hotel we stayed at, also for businessmen and tourists, we received a call late one night. I couldn’t understand the speaker, but I know it wasn’t room service asking if we wanted fresh towels at 11pm.

But I have to thank those ladies and their calling cards. I learned some new words, a little bit of culture and really, what more could you ask for in a day? The benefit of full immersion leaning is even a prostitute can be your teacher.


    • Yeah, there are other, more boring, examples of ways I have learned a lot, like from food packages and stuff. It’s just that food packages don’t make as compelling a story as prostitutes. 😉

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    • I don’t think you read far enough through the article. Becky gets to the proper definition/translation about two paragraphs after she first mentions the term.

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