Word of the week: nai kan
Some people are good looking, which in Chinese is hǎo kàn (literally, “good to look at”) but other people are not so lucky.
In Mandarin you can describe such an unfortunate individual as nán kàn. nán means difficult, so when someone is nán kàn you are literally saying they are “difficult to look at”, with the explicit implication being that they’re ugly.
Similarly, many westerners who are not used to Chinese cuisine find delicacies such as chickens feet and pig intestines to be nán chī. That is “difficult to eat”, which doesn’t mean physically difficult to eat (though they might well be if you can’t use chopsticks.) nán chī actually refers to the taste of food, the food is difficult to eat because it tastes bad.
Some people aren’t bad looking, but at first glance they’re not exactly good looking either. Perhaps it takes a while before a person can appreciate the beauty of their distinctive looks. These types of people can be described as nài kàn 耐看. nài 耐 can be translated as “patient” in English, so if someone is nài kàn then it means you need to be patient to appreciate their looks. It’s a bit like saying “they don’t seem good looking at first sight but after a while they start to grow on you”.
Of course nài kàn can also be a euphemistic way to say someone is ugly. If you say someone is nài kàn it could be similar to saying “I don’t think you’re ugly, it’s just it will take me a while before I can appreciate that you’re good looking”.
nǐ bú shì nán kàn, ér shì nài kàn ér yǐ
You’re not ugly, it’s just that you’re nài kàn (it takes a while to see that you’re not ugly)
Of course some people are actually nài kàn, whilst others are just outright nán kàn but you tell them they are nài kàn to make them feel better. Unfortunately we can’t all be hǎo kàn.