Things we say in China

5 08 2012

Today it is two years since we arrived in Beijing.  I’ve been thinking about the things that have become everyday speech here, that weren’t part of our car-owning, English-speaking life in a small New Zealand city.

  • Bicycle or taxi? (For every trip out of our neighbourhood, this is a decision to make.  Sometimes the answer is actually subway!)
  • What subway stop is that near? (No subways in our old city, or in fact any city in New Zealand though a couple have an urban train service)
  • Could you get some tofu skins at the market? (so many things to get at the market: lotus root and fresh water chestnuts and lychees and amaranth leaves and yard-long beans and all kind of vegetables we don’t really know the names for)
  • What vegetables shall we get delivered this week? (so many things we can get delivered here, but we especially love our weekly delivery from an organic farm, full of vegetables we aren’t familiar with but which, when asked how to prepare them, are invariably recommended to be stir-fried with garlic!)
  • Have you rung to get some water yet? (Drinking water is delivered in 18 litre canisters that we pop into our office-like water dispenser which provides hot and cold water)
  • How many shuipiao (water tickets) do we have left? (Both apartment complexes we have lived in had shops where you could buy sheets of water tickets in advance for the convenient purchase and delivery of drinking water)
  • Do we need to buy electricity this week? (The joy and hazards of a prepay electricity meter.  Our old one was by our front door and flashed when the level was getting low.  The new one is out of sight, in a small room down the hall, and therefore requires a bit more careful checking, particularly as we get to know just how much electricity we use with our air-cooling and air-filtering ways!)
  • Is it Communion this week? (The answer is ‘yes’ if it is a first or third Sunday of the month.  Outside of the previous experience of these Anglicans!)
  • Who’s on bread?  (The mysteries of the communion bread roster…  It matters all the more when getting bread that would work for communion is a bit of a logistical exercise…
  • Where are you going for your visa run? (Depending on the kind of visa that brings you to China, you may have to regularly depart and re-enter.  Hong Kong and Mongolia are both top choices!)
  • Shall we just book a driver? (For the trips that require more certainty than a taxi (maybe don’t ask me about the time when I decided to take a taxi to the airport when I had pneumonia and needed to depart during rush hour – one of the more miserable hours of my life standing on the side of the road with my luggage, hoping for a cab to appear).
  • Tai gui le!  (too expensive – a useful bargaining phrase.)
  • We’ll need to take you to the police station some time in the next 24 hours (any guest arriving has to register within 24 hours).
  • How’s the air today?  Good enough to go running? 
  • How bad’s the air today?  Will I need my mask?
  • Which building do you live in?  What floor are you on? (Questions that are pretty much a novelty to kiwis growing up in small towns/cities.  Here most everyone lives in a tower of some kind, or a villa in a complex.  Unless you’re cool and living in a hutong)
  • Ni hui shuo Yingyu ma?  (Are you able to speak English?)
  • Ting bu dong/ Wo bu mingbai (both versions of I don’t understand what you said to me)
  • Wo shi xinxilanren (I’m a New Zealander)
  • Wo bu shi Meiguoren – shi xinxilanren.  (I’m not an American, I’m a New Zealander – especially useful when in a market and stallholders are talking to each other about “that American”.  A very polite way to tell them that you speak enough chinese to have understood their comments about your stupidity/big nose/fatness)
  • I’m the pastor of a church for foreign passport holders. (offered up in both English or Chinese.  The foreign passport holders bit is by the law of the People’s Republic of China)
  • Can you turn up the air filters, it’s a bit hazardous.  
  •  Do you want aircon on? (Despite my planet-loving commitments, I’m not sure I could survive Beijing’s summer with it’s regular mid – high 30s temperatures, without the luxury of air-conditioning)
  • What date will the heating be turned on? (Heating dates by governmental decree.  Kind of like the changeover from summer to winter uniform at high school)
  • Is it cold enough to be a down coat day?  ( We try and hold off the down until day-time temperatures are sub-zero)
  • It’s really sunny – I’ll take an umbrella. (Portable shade – and if you don’t have a super-pretty summer umbrella trimmed with lace, or a silver heat-reflective one, just your ordinary, keep-the-rain-off umbrella will do)
  • Did the cab driver understand where you wanted to go? (Because some taxi drivers understand your poor Chinese and terrible tones, and some really don’t! Ending up at your intended destination can feel like no small triumph)
  • What tone is that? (Chinese language has four tones.  Even when I know the tone, you probably can’t hear it.  At least not over my crazy New Zealand-accented dodgy Chinese!)
  • Let’s call the restaurant and get them to give the cab driver directions (especially likely to be heard when you’re going past landmarks for the second time in five minutes)
  • Ayi is coming tomorrow.  (Always a happy occasion – you can read more about our ayi here)
  • I’m having a China day.  (Luckily not an everyday experience, even though China is our everyday place!  A China Day is an expat phrase for the days where it really gets to you!)

(Inspired by the list of former China residents here )




One response

6 08 2012
Lilian Nattel

I loved reading this and from the familiarity of my living room having a bit of the expat experience while remembering my stays there. Luckily here in Toronto, you can get tofu skins without travelling to Beijing!


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