What to say when a Chinese person cuts in the queue

Word of the week: gàn má


If you’ve ever been to China the lack of queuing etiquette might be one of the more negative impressions you’re left with. When the old man stood behind you at the supermarket checkout is sticking his arm in front of your face and trying to get served first you might even have the urge to turn around and give him a piece of your mind.

Unfortunately if you try giving a queue jumper a piece of your mind, British style, by politely telling him that you were there first, you will find it quite ineffective. You could say wǒ shì xiān lái de, which would literally translate as “I’m the one that came here first”, but in the minds of many Chinese people your words would be completely unrelated to the present situation. You might as well be telling them what year you were born in.

things got physical at a Beijing train station when one man jumped the taxi queue

things got physical at a Beijing train station when one man jumped the taxi queue

So what can you say? You could go to the other end of the politeness spectrum and shout gǔn, which translates as “fuck off” in English. But that would probably be too strong. The best option is probably to glare at the person and say nǐ gàn má in a stern voice. gàn má on its own will also do.

gàn má/ ni gàn má can be translated as “what the hell” or “what the hell are you doing”, assuming you say it in a stern or slightly angry tone of voice. You could also soften your tone of voice and add the particle ne (which softens the tone further) and say nǐ gàn má ne, which can be used in a more friendly way to say “what are you up to?”

However, if you’re angered by someone’s behaviour and you think it’s clear from context, then a cold stare and a sharp “gàn má” can be very useful.