Word of the Week: fàn
Although many people in China eat rice, very few people actually want the stuff. This might be difficult to believe but if you try saying to people “I want rice” (wǒ yào fàn 我要饭) you’ll soon find out why.
In China rice is so popular that the word for rice, fàn 饭 is often used just to mean a meal or food in general. wǒ 我 means “I” or “me” and yào 要 can be translated as want when placed before a noun but can also mean “will” when placed in front of a verb. Yet you’re very unlikely to hear a Chinese friend say wǒ yào fàn unless your friend is homeless.
This is because wǒ yào fàn “I want rice” is a phrase used by beggars. In fact it is so associated with beggars that the word for beggar is yào fàn de (one that wants rice). You can also say táo fàn de 讨饭的 (one that requests rice)
With the word yào fàn de we know that yào 要 means want and fàn 饭 means rice. “de” 的 I have translated as “one” but it is difficult to translate as a single word because it has a grammatical function that doesn’t really correlate to any one English word. It is actually estimated to be the most commonly used single word in Chinese, accounting for 2% of all Chinese characters written. In many situations “de” can be used to mean “one” in the sense of pointing out “which one”
For example, if you’re ordering a drink you can say you want a “small one” or a “big one”. It’s not uncommon to hear the question dà bēi hái shì Xiao bēi? big cup or small cup? After which you can just say dà de 大的 (a big one) or xiǎo de 小的 (a small one)
But whatever you want in China remember not to say you want rice, wǒ yào fan, in case people thing you’re a yào fàn de.