It seems like recently I’ve been learning more English words and collocations than Chinese ones. “Coronavirus” , “furlough” and “social distancing” were not part of my vocabulary three months ago.
Thanks to my time in China I was, however, already familiar with the concept of face masks 口罩 kǒu zhào (literally “mouth covering”). I am also equally familiar with the difficulty that many English speakers have with distinguishing the Mandarin zh and j sounds.
It was precisely this difficulty that lead a friend of mine to send a WeChat message to his Chinese wife saying “don’t forget my oral sex” (口交 kǒu jiāo) when in fact what he wanted to say was “don’t forget my face mask” (口罩 kǒu zhào). This pronunciation blunder went from mildly amusing to utterly hilarious when I found out he sent the message in a group chat with his wife’s family.
This got me thinking about the embarrassing mistakes that I’ve made when speaking Chinese. If you’ve never made an embarrassing mistake when speaking a foreign language you have probably never really learnt a foreign language. For me, the real challenge is deciding which mistake was the best (or should that be worst?) With that in mind, here are my top 3:
Offering to Marry the Taxi Driver
This was something I said after about one year of studying Chinese, and in hindsight it was probably quite revealing of my stage of what linguists call “interlanguage”. In other words, I’d got a grasp of enough Chinese grammar to spontaneously make sentences that were grammatically different to English, but I didn’t have a strong enough grasp to actually make grammatically correct Chinese sentences.
Basically, the taxi driver was not particularly willing to go to where I wanted to go (apparently too far out of his way). What I wanted to say was “I’ll give you an extra 10 RMB”. In Mandarin the best way to say this would probably be 我多给你十块钱 (I extra give you ten RMB) but what I actually said was 我加给你十块钱 (I add give you ten RMB)
No doubt this sounds very strange to a Chinese person, but in context could have probably been understood no problem. This is, if I hadn’t made the pronunciation mistake of saying jià (marry) instead of jiā (add). The result being that a confused taxi was propositioned with “I marry you, 10 RMB”.
Asking the Dinner Lady to Give Me a Grandson
With most my mistakes I usually take solace from the fact that my Chinese was so bad at the time that people probably didn’t understand anything of what I said anyway, so it’s not that embarrassing.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case seven years ago when I was working at a primary school and attempting to order food in the staff canteen. I wanted bamboo shoots (sǔn) but instead said grandson (sūn zi) with the result that I basically demanded the middle aged woman provide me with a grandchild. This is made more amusing by the fact that in China it’s very common for middle aged women to be demanding a grandson, but not so common for them to be on the receiving end of the demand.
Needless to say, every staff member in the room burst out laughing. It’s quite normal for English speakers to get tones wrong, so sūn instead of sǔn isn’t that strange. What I couldn’t explain was why I had automatically added zi at the end.
Perhaps it’s because of the way vocabulary is stored in the brain. There are neural connections in the brain linking words to each other so that one word will trigger another. Often these neural connections go in one direction, the order in which those words were learnt. This explains why the alphabet is so much more difficult to say backwards. There is a neural connection from “A” to “B” but “B” has a forward connection to “C”, not back to “A”.
Basically, one word will often tigger another word. When I got the tone for sǔn (bamboo shoots) wrong and said sūn it probably automatically triggered zi, making the word “grandson”. All of this pseudo-academic talk is, of course, just my way of trying to make myself feel better about an otherwise horrifically embarrassing situation.
Unintentional Rape Joke
I was in a bar with my girlfriend and some Chinese friends. My memory is a bit blurry but we were playing a drinking game involving dice, which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever been in China.
To cut a long story short, after losing a few times at this game my girlfriend at some point said to me in a slightly mocking tone 你弱爆了 (you are weak explosion). I wasn’t familiar with the phrase 弱爆了 but I took it to mean something along the lines of “extremely weak” or “weakling” (and to my credit, I was basically right.)
What I wasn’t right about was the opposite of 弱爆了 (literally “weak explode”). I interpreted “explode” to be acting like a kind of adverbial intensifier, and made the logical (albeit incorrect) deduction that all I would need to do is replace the word “weak” with “strong”.
The result was that I very loudly announced in front of everyone 我不是弱爆了，我强暴了！And when everyone fell over laughing I wasn’t quite sure why, especially when one of my friends congratulated me on the joke, saying that my Chinese was better than they thought.
Of course, the real joke is actually the fact that I had no idea what I just said. I could either admit to an embarrassing mistake or go along with it, pretend it was an intentional joke and let them think my Chinese was great.
It turned out that although “weak explode” means “extremely weak”, the word “strong explode” means “rape” and I had unknowingly made some sort of rape joke. I never made that mistake again, but let it be a lesson to us all about trying to use too much logic when it comes to collocations.
What are your most embarrassing Mandarin mistakes? Or what linguistic blunders has your “friend” made? Feel free to tell us in the comments section below so we can all have a good laugh… I mean, learn from each other’s mistakes.