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).

“A ru-ler”.


“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.


  1. Hahaha, that’s hilarious. My stationary vocab is a bit rusty now being out of the ESL racket for more than a year, but it used to be decent simply because I taught kids and kids seem to endlessly want to talk about their pencil boxes when studying foreign languages.

  2. hilarious. This is too funny. I can totally relate. But one rule I always try to remember… message a few friends first before humbling myself. Of course…most of my chinese friends wouldn’t understand anyway…it’s just one of those words… you gotta have some picture dictionary…

  3. My first major humbling experience was when I ordered green tea in a tea house holding the empty tea pot and still the waitress did not know what I wanted.
    Green tea was just too damn hard to say. That is when it really hit home that tones are important. Jeez, I was saying green tea in a tea house holding a tea pot and she still didn’t know my meaning.

    Another one was, when myself and my friend(who after 3 years of self study (and 2 back in the States)only recently gave up on the tones-don’t-matter-if-you-speak-fast-fallacy) wanted to go to the train station and my he got angry with the taxi driver (I could not say tt corretly at that time, either) and instead of saying “huo che zhan” (fire vehicle stand, which means train station) said I want to go to the good food stand. GOOD FOOD STAND! damn you.
    We got to out destination because I made the noise and action of a train and in doing so lost part of my dignity. Choo-choo!!!!
    That was over 3 years ago. I have been humbled since.

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