Don’t Get Tricked in China. Or Scammed. Or Lied to.

Like most westerners studying in China, I have also done time as an English teacher for children. The summer before studying at Zhejiang University I earned myself a bit of pocket money teaching at a two-week primary school “summer camp”. This so called “summer camp” was actually just an extra two weeks of school with the only difference being that there were even more classes than usual (plus a few more ‘foreigner teachers’).

I did enjoy teaching kids though, and I made up a really cool prepositions game using flash cards. I’d have flashcards for three different locations in the park (playground, duck pond, sweet shop, etc) and then I would hide the “toilets” flashcard behind one of them. I’d drill the whole class to ask “where are the toilets?” and then they would take it in turns to say “it’s behind the…” If they guessed right their team got a point.

It’s simple and the kids loved it. The problem is that I got bored quicker than they did, so to amuse myself one time I didn’t hide the toilets flash card at all. The kids took it in turns to guess where the toilets where, and when there was only one flashcard left (the playground) they were literally jumping up and down shouting “teacher, teacher, let me try!” They all thought the toilets were behind the playground and when I finally revealed what was behind the playground (nothing!) the look on their faces was priceless.

你耍了我们! nǐ shuǎ le wǒ men (you tricked us!) they shouted. It’s amazing just how seriously those six year old kids take a simple ESL game.

In this situation the verb 耍 shuǎ just means to trick and is often used in the passive 我们被耍了! wǒ men bèi shuǎ le (we’ve been tricked!) This verb is less likely to be used in serious situations, and the connotations are more likely to be used in a playful, joking way. But not always. You could translate it idiomatically as “we’ve been taken for a ride”.

If you’ve been tricked by someone who directly lied to you then you’re more likely to use the verb 骗 piàn, which in some context could be translated as “trick” but unlike shuǎ it is more likely to be used with sinister connotations and could equally be translated as “lie” or “scam”.

Yes, I tricked these poor children

So if your flatmate plays a practical joke on you the sentence 我被耍了wǒ bèi shuǎ le (I’ve been tricked) with playful connotations fits best. But if you meet some young girls in Beijing who offer to take you to a “traditional Chinese tea house” and then present you with an extortionate bill after just one cup of tea, you would probably say我被骗了wǒ bèi piàn le (I’ve been scammed!) And if you’ve never heard of the Chinese tea lady scam you should check it (and other common scams) out before making a trip to the Middle Kingdom.

There is another word, 撒谎 sā huǎng, which means to “tell a lie”, the verb 骗 piàn tends to be used when saying “lied to someone”. In Chinese it’s quite natural to say something like 他明明在撒谎 tā míng míng zài sā huǎng (he was clearly lying) but you’re less likely to hear a Chinese person say 他对我撒谎了 tā duì wǒ sā huǎng le (he to me told a lie) in spoken Chinese because 他骗我了 tā piàn wǒ le (he lied to me) is more common.

Another interesting thing to point out is that when an English speaker wants to emphasise that they are not lying they might say “I’m telling you the truth” but a Chinese speaker would probably say 我不骗你 wǒ bù piàn nǐ or 我没骗你 wǒ méi piàn (I’m not lying to you/ I’m not tricking you).

All this talk about lying and tricking people brings me back to the topic of teaching English to children. The main reason I didn’t continue was because I found that so many schools in China would lie and trick parents into paying money by saying that people were native speakers (when they weren’t) or that they had lots of experience (when they didn’t know anything about teaching or have any qualifications). In fact, over the years in China I have on multiple occasions had someone randomly walk up to me in the street and ask if I want to teach English at their school without even asking me my name or where I’m from. I doubt they let the parents know that this is their recruitment policy.

这种学校都是骗人的 zhè zhǒng xué xiào dōu shì piàn rén de (these kind of schools are all tricking/ scamming/ lying to people)