Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Neither Coke nor Water

Sometimes I really don't understand why people can't understand my Chinese.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I use the wrong words, the wrong tones, the wrong facial expressions a lot of the time. But still, if you don't understand a person, don't you sit there trying to work out what they might have meant?

Of course, it's not just with Chinese - this is an English problem too. Let me start with an example that happened in Boston USA about a year ago. A small group of us were sitting in a restaurant (including my cousin, who had been living in Boston for 10 years).

The waitress asks us what we'd like to drink, my cousin orders a coffee, I order a "Sam Adams" (the beer is actually called "Samuel Adams", but this waitress is so smart, so she managed to work out what I wanted), and Charlie orders a water. She orders water using her English accent, saying "water" very clearly.

"Sorry, what?"

The waitress is really struggling to understand the word "water", in spite of the fact that she just asked us what we'd like to drink. "Wheelbarrow" would not have made sense, but "water" seems quite obvious.

My cousin interrupts: "She wants water."  Lynn says this with a Boston accent, which sounds more like "wadder" than "waw-tuh".

"Oh wadder?  Sure, no problem," and off the waitress goes.

Seriously. This really happened.

And so to Chinese.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Shenzhen. I'm in a restaurant, and wanting to order a Diet Coke. Dammit! I can't remember the Chinese word for diet Coke - so I say ​kě​lè​ (可乐)(可樂)('cola'). This part she understands.

I remember that the word for "lose weight" is jiǎn​féi (减肥), which kinda rings bells. I know it's not quite right, but it's close ... so I take a guess by asking for "jiǎn kě​lè".

She doesn't get it. I clarify by saying "méi​yǒu​ táng​" (no sugar), then I repeat "jiǎn kě​lè".  This is not going anywhere, and after another minute of trying, I give up and just order a normal coke.

Now the truly frustrating part is that the word I was looking for was "jiàn​yí​ kě​lè" (健怡可乐)(健怡可樂). When I looked that up back in HK, I was dumbfounded - because she knew I was looking for a type of cola, it doesn't contain sugar, and it sounds like "jiǎn kě​lè".

Wouldn't "jiàn​yí​ kě​lè" be an obvious guess?  I guess not.

tom-A-to is different to tom-ah-to,  but people can work that out.
water is almost the same as wadder, but people can't work that one out.

And I know that what I speak is is waaaaay different to proper Chinese, but still ....


  1. My problem is that if I want water in China, I'm not sure which word to use. When I say 水 shui, they say "Is coke okey?" Now I looked the dictionary and found 清水 qingshui, maybe I should try that next time.

  2. Hey Sara. Good observation - that happened in Shenzhen too.

    Surreal actually, because my colleagues was ordering water (shuǐ, 水) and the waitress didn't get it. (To be fair, he's new to Chinese, and his tones were wrong - but we're ordering drinks, can't be too bad, right?) Anyway, I interrupted by saying "bīng shuǐ" (冰水, ice-water), and she got it.

    Let me know how that works for you.

  3. How do you say "No tip for you, you misunderstanding servant" in Chinese and Bostonian?

  4. Might work better if tipping was a concept the waitstaff were familiar with here in China :)

    I've had the ordering shuǐ, 水 problem at xiaomaibu, they responded with "what kind of shuǐ? And pointed to a Coke, a Fanta, a sports drink...

    I was so confused, didn't I say WATER? But apparently all those drinks are kinds of shuǐ (liquid really) in Chinese.

    I've found saying 矿泉水 kuàngquánshuǐ helps a lot. When I can remember how to say it.

  5. OMG GREEEG. This has happened to me SOOOOOOOOOO much.

    I remember one time like three years ago I went to a Chinese store, and my mom knew the owner and TOLD me that she speaks Mandarin, so I picked up a pair of shoes that did not have a tag on it and was like:

    me: 多少钱?
    her: UH?!
    me: How much is it?
    her: it's seven dollars.

    Um . . . duh. Really? I completely know how you feel. D:

    I think it just depends on who you're talking to, because my Chinese teacher from 12th grade didn't understand when I would stumble on a word, but my CHEMISTRY teacher did (and she speaks Mandarin, Canto, and English). What are the odds?

    Anyway, glad to hear that you're almost fluent. I swear, you're probably better than me now :)

    My university doesn't provide Chinese so I've been trying to find a good drama, but I'm not a TV person so I've seriously realized how picky I am when I come to that kind of thing. I keep telling myself I'm going to go back to LiveMocha but I never do it. :) One of my latest goals is to read the Bible in Chinese! (ironically, I'm an agnostic, but I figured, that is some feat!) so lolz. Here I am. I might do study abroad in China over the next few years though . . . Hopefully :)

    You have no idea how much I miss being in school with Chinese people. It's so weird!

    How are you Greg? It's been awhile. You need to post blogs more often. Clearly you can tell that you have some really loyal followers. Please keep it up! We love to hear from you! :)

  6. Cesar, actually tipping is an interesting difference - not expected in China, yet demanded in the US!

    mouseneb, I think I'd also forget "kuàngquánshuǐ", so I'll just stick with "bīng shuǐ". Which reminds me to mention that (and this is my experience only) it depends where in China you are. In some places it seems that "bīng shuǐ" just means cold water, and in others it literally means water with ice. If you're just looking for cold, then the latter places seem to expect you to say "lěng shuǐ".

    Kara, hello again. Yeah, it is a bit "duh" isn't it? Fluent? I don't remember claiming that! Even "almost fluent" makes me snicker to myself too. Good luck on the bible - rather a brave venture - you're certainly going to get challenged every step of the way. I don't doubt you can do it though. Bit by bit I'm settling in here, so I should be blogging more regularly again from now-ish!

  7. yikes. maybe it's time to drink tea always ?

  8. yah, i feel like this happened to me every day in Shanghai as well. i'm still a little angry about it, haha.

  9. Hey BtM, sadly drinking tea is an art around here, especially if you're talking milk tea. You gotta decide whether to have it hot or cold, if it's cold there is the decision how much ice to get, and you also decide about the sugar content (at the ordering stage). Sigh. So I'm crossing the tea's. (Oh no, that's a terrible joke, sorry!)

    Thanks kungfudonut

    Ah jp, but since you moved back to the US, have people been able to understand your English??

  10. once I ordered 百事可乐 (Pepsi) at a chinese restaurant but the waitress thought I said 白色可乐 (white soda) so she brought me Sprite. lol

  11. Don't feel so bad, Andy, I've seen the opposite happen with Chinese friends of mine, at least a couple of times. They will be asking the waiter for 'spirits', and he (just like me) is thinking of whiskey or vodka, but what they're *actually* asking for is "Sprite".

  12. If you're in China and you don't want bottled water you'll want to order 白开(水) baikai shui, plain boiled water. Some people call it liang baikai, if they want it cold, because some Chinese people like their water really hot (then you know it's been boiled and won't give you 'stomach flu').

  13. Hi Greg,
    How are things in HK? I'm going on through Heisig. Any word on when Book 2 will be ready?


  14. James, I'm loving HK (although spending a fair amount of time elsewhere in Asia on business).

    In terms of Heisig 2, I'm in a quandry. Because I'm in HK, I should be leading the traditional character set, although I learned simplified. I could either just get Simplified 2, and continue to 'integrate' traditional into my knowledge experientially only. Or I could buy Traditional 1 first, because I'll need to build up new stories right from the beginning.

    Decisions decisions ...