Yes, we all enjoy having a giggle over the myriad of ‘Chinglish’ mistakes we see all around us in China. I myself was posting a picture of a menu offering “catch-up sauce” when it occurred to me: what about the other way around? Do our mistakes in Chinese get laughed about? So I investigated the most common and the most embarrassing mistakes made by foreigners and have distilled my favourites into a nice list below – over which you are welcome to ‘LYFAO’.
We all make mistakes: some are you-know-what-I-meant kind of mistakes that are quickly forgotten; and others are utterly-humiliating-red-faced-kill-me-now kind of mistakes that stay with you until the end of time.
Don’t let this stop you from trying by any means. I have been stuttering out jumbled sentences in Chinese for three years… thankfully the majority, rather than minority, of them are actually coherent now. But in all this time – learning by textbook, teacher, tutor and travel – it is my diabolical mistakes that have brought me the most clarity.
And just a shout-out to the people who willingly shared their humiliations below: it is those foreigners who are brave enough to tackle the language and speak out when they are only 50% sure of what they are saying that have the best stories to tell.
As they say, the only way to live through it is to laugh through it!
At a friends place, we were eating crabs for dinner. She had spent a lot of money and effort to serve us these crabs, but I had no idea how to eat them. When she saw me staring blankly at them she asked me what was wrong. I said it was 难吃(nán chī). As far as I knew, 难 meant “difficult” and 吃 “to eat” – the crab is too damn difficult to eat!
Her crestfallen face told me all. Turns out 难吃 actually means “not tasty/ disgusting”. My enduring mortification makes me a very polite guest now.
In Taiwan they refer to the people that emigrated from Mainland China to Taiwan in the 1940s as “外省人”(wài shěng rén), and in a speech once, I called them all “外星人” (wài xīng rén) by mistake.
So instead of welcoming all the “people from other provinces” I welcomed all the “aliens.” Oops.
When I was new in Beijing I didn’t speak any Chinese. I would often go out with other foreigners in the company, and I would hear them say “服务员儿”(fú wù yuán er) in restaurants and bars and such which I assumed to mean, “Excuse me” because that is how they used it. So I thought that’s a good word to learn, right? I often found myself having to ask strangers for help in the street when I was lost. And of course I said, “Excuse me” every time. So I was going up to strangers in the street and shouting, “Waiter!”
The amazing thing was, they would always help me. I have found Chinese people to be very polite and friendly to foreigners, much more so than we are in Europe. If a foreigner goes up to a stranger in Europe and basically insults them, they are not going to help them, hell no.
In my first few months in Xiamen, I was on beach with some friends and went over to a rowdy bunch of graduates near us to ask for a lighter. Being British, I thought it was impolite to jump straight to the question, so I started with, “Wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ… 我想问你…”
I’d like to ask you…
But instead, I said, “Wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ…我想吻你…”
I’d like to kiss you…
I stood there, oblivious as to what had caused such a huge reaction in the group and why I was suddenly surrounded by a lot of keen looking guys…
I was in a restaurant with this guy, late at night in a kind of shady area, and he wanted to order some chicken, so he was like “我要鸡！我要鸡！” Which actually means, “I want a prostitute!” The waitress was just staring at him wide-eyed and incredulous.
If you want chicken, don’t forget the 肉 (rou/meat)!
I heard of a guy who got slapped in a restaurant for asking a waitress,
“一晚多少钱？” (Yī wǎn duōshǎo qián? How much for one night?)
which was supposed to be,
“一碗多少钱？”( Yī wǎn duōshǎo qián? How much for one bowl?)
I wish I could take credit for this one.
A friend of mine was at a restaurant looking for his leather wallet. He wanted to say, “Wǒ zhǎo bù dào wǒ de píbāo,” (我找不到我的皮包) which is, “I cannot find my leather wallet.”
But instead he said, “Wǒ zhǎo bù dào wǒ de bāopí,” (我找不到我的包皮) which is, “I cannot find my foreskin.”
The whole restaurant thoroughly enjoyed that one.
Yes we are all very lucky to live in China, because people are very forgiving of our mistakes. I only need to say a, “谢谢” to get a, “哇，你中文讲的这么好!” (Wa, nǐ zhōngwén jiǎng de zhème hǎo! Wow, you speak Chinese so well!). Such flattery is by no means well deserved, but very welcome indeed!
Which mistake is your favourite? Share your mistakes for more laughs in the comments section below!