Twenty-year China expat and entrepreneur Stewart Lee Beck knows better than most how the nuances of the Chinese language can cause problems for unwary travellers. To that end he has collaborated with accomplished Chinese teacher Katie Lu to create a new book – China Simplified: Language Gymnastics – to help out.
Here, he shares five easy ways to avoid foot-in-mouth disease on your trip to China.
Chinese respond with unbridled enthusiasm to others learning their language. To say the Chinese lשּׂo bשּׂi xìng 老百姓 (common people) appreciate their foreign guests struggling with their native tongue is an immense understatement.
There is an honest respect – coupled with plenty of polite exaggeration – for those persevering with a language which even they, as native speakers, consider daunting. So whether you are travelling for business or taking a long holiday, I’d suggest learning a few key phrases. You'll be a big hit with the locals!
Many know the colour red is particularly important in China – often associated with good fortune or joy. Traditionally red envelopes are used for gifts of money, especially at Chinese New Year and at weddings. Brides almost always have a red gown as one of their multiple wedding day outﬁts.
The colour green signifies environmental friendliness, so it’s good almost everywhere – except on hats. Because of the colour green is associated with green-hatted soldiers who are often away from home for months at a time, the saying dài lלּ mào (戴绿帽), 'wearing a green hat,' means quite possibly that your wife is cheating on you.
Reading into the many ambiguities of Chinese is all part of the fun. The phrase yīng gāi méi wèn tí (应该没问题) literally means 'should be no problem' but it all depends on how they respond. Short, dismissive answers are better. If you hear a long drawn out 'yīīīīīīnnnnnng gāāāāāāiiiiii méi wèntí' you could be in deep trouble.
Chinese are extremely superstitious and the language is the key to understanding this. The number four sì (四) is dangerous because it sounds like the word sǐ (死) 'to die'.
The paranoia all derives from homonyms and sound-alikes, such are the superstitions in China, hence this point is named #5 not #4. Why take chances? The number eight bā (八) is much better as it sounds like fā (发) 'to make a fortune'.
Should you consider bringing your Chinese host or friend a gift, be careful what you give. Firstly, never give clocks. Giving a zhōng (钟) is a huge faux pas since the phrase sòng zhōng (送终), literally meaning ‘send to death’, implies watching someone die.
Additionally, in Shanghainese, the word píng guo (苹果) meaning ‘apple’ sounds similar to bìng gù (病故) which means to ‘sicken and die’, so avoid giving apples to friends in hospital.
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