Word of the Week: bái
I think most expats in China have experienced the situation where you go into a shop and no matter how clearly you try to speak Mandarin you get a response in English. Even if their English is clearly not as good as your Mandarin, and even if you’re not even a native English speaker, they will occasionally refuse to accept that you are speaking to them in anything other than English. If no one lets you speak Mandarin haven’t you just wasted your time studying it?
Sometimes I meet Chinese people with a reasonable level of English and when I ask what hobbies they have they say to me “sleeping”, “eating” or “shopping”. If you study a language and have nothing interesting to say in that language haven’t you wasted your time?
In both these situations we can say bái xué le. The verb xué means study and when it is sandwiched between bái and le it means that you’ve performed the verb but that it has been pointless. This structure of bái。。。le with a verb in the middle can be used with any verb that is one syllable long.
Every week I write a blog post. In Mandarin the word for write is xiě, so if I write a blog post and no one reads it I can say wǒ bái xiě le (I pointlessly wrote/ I wrote but it was pointless). If you want to add an object to the verb it comes after le. So if you write a book, yī běn shū, but writing the book was pointless because no publisher accepted it you can say wǒ bái xiě le yī běn shū (I pointlessly wrote a book)
This sentence structure is commonly used to express regret or disappointment, usually because performing the verb did not bring about the expected result. It is also often used when you do something that you thought was necessary or useful but you later found out wasn’t. For example if you read a book, kàn shū, because you think it is necessary for an exam and then your teacher tells you there won’t be an exam anymore then you can say wǒ bái kàn le nà běn shū (I pointlessly read that book)
The word bái l iterally means white if you look up the character in your dictionary but it appears before lots of words that when translated into English have nothing to do with white. For example bái chī also has the word white but means “an idiot” when used as a noun or “stupid” when used as an adjective.
Interestingly this word bái chī means stupid but is also a homophone for “white eat” so I feel there should be a pun to be had here. Perhaps a cannibal eats someone’s brain thinking it will make him more intelligent but then finds out it is the brain of a really stupid person. tā bù shì bái chī le ma? (hasn’t he pointlessly eaten it?)
Then again, making jokes in Chinese often isn’t as easy as we think. Click here to find out why.