Whenever I become too cocky about my Chinese skills I seem to have a humbling experience: The latest took place the other week at my university. After a class where I actually understood all the major points of the newspaper articles we were reading, I headed for the book store to buy myself a ruler.
Just ten minutes before, I had managed to figure out what the word for beta carotene is in Chinese, but now I realize I don’t know how to say “ruler”. Well, here’s a chance to add another word to my vocabulary. I look “ruler” up in my pocket dictionary, memorize the pinyin and the tones and enter the store.
“Hi, do you have any rulers?”, I ask with carefully studied pronunciation.
“A what!?” says the lady behind the counter (maybe she’s hard of hearing).
“You know, a ruler?”, I try again.
She turns to look at the shelves behind the counter and hands me a selection of notebooks.
“No, not a notebook, a ruler!”
The lady is starting to look embarrassed. She turns to a couple of Chinese students.
“Can you translate what she wants?” she asks them.
“Ruler?” says I.
They look at me blankly. I give up and say in English: “I’m looking for a ruler”.
They say something to the lady which is definitely another word than the one I’ve been repeating. I pay three kuai for my new ruler and leave the shop, utterly humbled.
As is explained to me later that evening, the reason for all this confusion is an English homonym. The “ruler” I had looked up translated to Chinese as 统治者 (tongzhizhe), which basically means “lord”. Generally speaking, rulers of countries or regions can not be purchased in book stores.
If you’re wondering, the stationery kind of ruler is 尺子, chizi, in Chinese.