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How Do You Say “Bird-Brained” In Cantonese?

, , , , , , | Friendly | March 2, 2018

(I’m in a park in Hong Kong, where they have an aviary with a wide variety of exotic birds, including several species of parrots.)

Parrot: “Hello!”

(I see an older gentleman, presumably a tourist from Mainland China, yelling at this bird.)

Man: “Ni hao ma!”

Parrot: “Hello!”

Man: “Ni hao ma!”

Parrot: “Hello!”

Man: “NI HAO MA!”

Parrot: “Hello!”


(Good luck trying to teach Mandarin to a bird that can only speak English in a region that primarily speaks Cantonese!)

A Familiar Problem In A Foreign Land

, , , , | Friendly | December 11, 2017

I go to China with my dad at a very young age. I am extremely tall, so when I interact with people in public, they treat me like a young adult, which is very confusing to me. I only speak Shanghainese, which is specific dialect that has no written language anymore. I know only basic Chinese.

The airport I am in is a lot less crowded than the one back home, but because I am still so young, I am holding onto my dad’s jacket as we walk around. In my head, it should be clear I am a child because of this.

My dad sits me down with our stuff near the bathroom as he leaves to do his business. Not even a minute later, a woman comes up to me and insists I sign something. I try to say my Chinese is not good, but she’s deaf and ignores this as she forces her clipboard into my hands.

Everything on that clipboard is written in Chinese, and I see names written down with numbers next to them, but no money sign of any sort. I shrug and figure she’s collecting signatures. I think that maybe the numbers are the time of day that people have signed, because they don’t go past 24, and because it is a different country I assume they have used military time.

I do my best to write my Chinese name, as my parents taught me, and I write 13.47 down, which is the time. When I give it back to the lady, she smiles and holds out her hand. I don’t know what she is doing and just shake her hand. This goes on for a bit as she gets increasingly more upset.

Eventually, she throws her hands in the air in frustration and shows me the clipboard again, jabbing at the number I wrote down. I keep trying to act out “I don’t know” to her, but she just scowls and keeps referring to the number. My dad finally comes out of the bathroom and sees what is going on. I think he is going to clear things up when he moves me and our stuff behind him as he goes to the woman.

Instead, he puts on a stone face after he sees the clipboard once, and mouths, “No, we don’t want to. We don’t have any,” in Chinese to the woman, while repeatedly waving his hand in her face until she scowls and leaves, glaring at me.

My dad tells me that she was a “donations collector” for deaf people and most likely came to the airport to try and find foreigners to get money off of. He also tells me that my behavior made it clear I was a foreigner because I was willing to listen and see what that woman was doing. According to him, local Chinese people know to shoo those types of people away, and that being rude is the only way to save your money and belongings in China if you’ve been “targeted.”

I’d like to say this wasn’t true, and I still try to be kind to people when I first meet them, but these types of situations continued to happen more times than I’d like to admit whenever I went back to China. I have indeed learned to ignore the “collectors” that wander in places that have many foreigners.

That’s Their Excuse And They’re Chop-Sticking To It

, , , | Working | June 20, 2017

(I am 15. A few of my friends and I, along with my and one of my friend’s fathers, have decided to go out for dinner. This is the type of place where you don’t order individual dishes, but a set of 14 dishes are gradually added to the table. We are the only table there, as we decided to go out before rush hour started. We are seated at our table and begin to talk as we wait for plates and utensils to be handed out. Note that my father and I are the only white people at the table, but have lived in Wuzhen for eight years. My father is fluent in Mandarin, and I am semi-fluent, as my school is taught in English.)

Waitress: *in English* “Good evening, all. We hope you enjoy your food.” *in Mandarin* “[Waiter #1], this table needs plates, bowls, and chopsticks, now!”

(Waiter #1 comes over with a stack of plates and chopsticks and sets them down in front of each of us. As he turns to leave a second waiter comes by and peers over our table before doing a double take and marching over to Waiter #1 and whispering something inaudible. Waiter #2 then walks over to the cutlery tray and picks up two forks before coming back over to our table, shooing the first waiter away. I can hear him say something along the lines of “Get it right.”)

Waiter #2: *picking up my chopsticks and replacing it with the fork, doing the same with my father, and speaking in English* “Sorry for the mix-up, sir. [Waiter #1] is still in training.”

(My father stops him, taking the chopsticks back.)

Dad: “No thank you, sir. I am happy using chopsticks; so is my daughter.” *he gestures to me* “May we have them back?”

Waiter #2: “Are you sure, sir? It’s okay not to use chopsticks.”

Dad: *nods* “I know how to use chopsticks, sir. May I have them back?”

(The waiter then frowns before scurrying off, with our forks and chopsticks, coming back after a minute with the waitress.)

Waitress: *to my father* “What is the problem, sir?”

Dad: “I would just like to have my and my daughter’s chopsticks back. That waiter left when I said I didn’t want a fork.”

Waitress: *pauses and then to [Waiter #2] in Mandarin* “What’s wrong? Give him the chopsticks.”

Waiter #2: *snarkily in Mandarin* “Are you stupid? No! He’ll try to use them, dirty them, and ask for a fork. It happens every time. Just give him a fork to start with.”

Waitress: “What makes you so sure he can’t use them?”

Waiter #2: “Look at him! Of course he can’t. All the Westerners that come here leave their chopsticks, but dirty them trying! If he changes his mind and asks for a fork, you can wash the chopsticks, not me.”

Dad: *in fluent Mandarin* “Excuse me, sir. What makes you think my daughter and I can’t use them?”

(Cue the waitress and waiter looking in surprise at my father. The waiter glares at him incredulously before slowly placing the chopsticks back down on his plate, marching angrily around to my table and shoving them down onto mine as well, and storming off. The waitress is still standing there in shock, embarrassed.)

Waitress: *in Mandarin* “Apologies, sir.”

Dad: “It’s no problem.”

(She rushes off back towards the kitchen and my friends and I begin to eat the food that has been set out for us. We can still spot Waiter #2 glaring at us from the corner of the room, waiting for one of us to give in and ask for a fork. It’s beginning to get slightly unnerving, so I choose to ignore him. My friend is struggling with her chopsticks, as she has just transferred from America but appears Korean as her father is. Her father eventually calls the waiter over to ask for a fork.)

Waiter #2: *sneering proudly like he’s just won a bet* “Gladly, sir.”

(He grabs a fork and walks around the table to where I am sitting, thrusting the fork in front of me and snatching the chopsticks from my bowl.)

Waiter #2: “Here you go, madam.”

Me: *in Mandarin* “Oh, those aren’t for me. Those are for [Friend].” *I gesture to my friend who is shyly raising her hand on the other side of the table* “I don’t need them but—”

(The waiter walks away before I can finish my sentence. He takes the fork back and gives it to my friend, frowning.)

Me: “Excuse me, sir?”

Waiter #2: *exasperated* “Yes, madam?”

Me: “May I have another pair of chopsticks? You’re holding mine from the top.”

(The waiter looks down and sure enough is still holding my used chopsticks in his hand. He glares at me a moment before exclaiming in Mandarin “You’re a tourist. Just use a fork like everyone else!” and then marching off towards the kitchen. He never returned with my chopsticks, so I ended up using my friend’s instead. I don’t know how long he had been working there, as I hadn’t been there before, but surely he must have seen a white person use chopsticks before. Needless to say, we haven’t been back since.)

Unintended Entendres

, , | Right | April 16, 2010

(I have just completed a firewall and Internet circuit install for an international customer. His English is far better than my Cantonese, but slang expressions didn’t always translate.)

Customer: “Thank you! You know, we were worried about having a female engineer, but now I see that they are better.”

Me: “Well, thank you, sir. I’m glad your Internet is up and running. We always try to do a good job.”

Customer: “You even cleaned the server room! Men never clean the server room. It looks very nice!”

Me: “…”

Customer: “I don’t think I have ever seen such a nice rack! Thank you!”