Learning Chinese has been very interesting so far. The funniest thing, is that there are so many synonyms for one word, but they (sometimes) cannot be used interchangeably. That’s what’s a bit of a head scratcher from time to time, but it keeps things interesting. Let me tell you about some funny blunders I made learning Chinese.
When I first arrived in China, I said to myself, “Girl, you’re in China now. You have to eat like Chinese, go out and get yourself some chopsticks.” A quick Chinese lesson before I continue: Chinese has four (4) tones, some words have the same tone, but the 汉字 (the Chinese character), is different. At that time, I had no idea that the Chinese character for “chopsticks” is 筷子. The funny looking things on top, are bamboo (竹子), which indicates it’s made from wood.
I confused 筷子 with this character, 快子. If you’ve ever seen Chinese people eat, you’ll know they eat very fast (at least I think so). That’s why I thought the word “chopsticks” was written the second way, which means “fast; quick; rapid; swift / speed / hurry up; make haste,” to name a few. But, they all have to do with speed. The two words, though written differently, are pronounced the same.
Excited about this new endeavor, I went to a mall to buy me some chopsticks! I used them for about a week, but I soon discovered using chopsticks isn’t quite as easy as I had hoped. It’s just not convenient. My food literally slipped through the chopsticks, it took me almost two hours to finish one meal, I was always hungry! I returned back to the mall, angry, and bought a whole bunch of spoons. I said to myself, “快子are not fast at all! They should change the name to 慢子!” 慢means “slow.” After complaining about it to my Chinese friend, he laughed at me, said that it had nothing to do with speed. Because chopsticks are used in pairs, it refers to “a piece,” you need to of them to eat. That also has the same pronunciation, but the Chinese character is 块, which is also used to refer to money. When speaking, people often use 块钱 (pieces of money) instead of Renminbi.
That’s just one of the blunders. The second one was more of a misunderstanding
I was in a cab making small talk with the driver, it went something like this:
(Driver: “Where are you from?”)
(Phoenix: “I am from Suriname.”)
(Driver: “Suriname? Is that in Africa?”)
(Phoenix: No, I’m not from Africa.”)
(Driver: Really? You’re not from Africa? Then why are you Black?”)
At that time, I didn’t know how to answer him. I didn’t have a good enough grasp of the language to tell him that, because of slavery, Black people are almost everywhere, just like Chinese people. The question really bothered me at the time. I thought, how can someone be so small-minded to think all Black people are from Africa! But now that I understand Chinese people and their culture more, I understand the question wasn’t meant to make me uncomfortable, or what-have-you, it’s just genuine curiosity. It really surprised me to find out that most Chinese (the one’s I’ve met so far) people think ALL Black people are Africans. Also, when I tell them I’m from South America, they often confuse it with the “south of America,” as in I’m from somewhere in the south of the USA.
Not convinced this is one of my blunders? Keep reading, LOL!
The driver and I continued our conversation:
(Driver: “Did you come to China to read a book?”)
(Phoenix: “No, not at all, I didn’t come here just to read a book, I’m here to study. My country also has books, we have many books!”)
I was very offended by his question. It made me think back to some conversations I had with some of my friends who were already here. They told me most Chinese are racist to Black people, they think we’re all dumb, can’t read, can’t write, that we’re all from some poor country in Africa. I couldn’t help but think he thought the same way about me, otherwise, why would he ask me if I came to China to read a book?!!
I thought to myself, “Another stupid (sorry, “differently brained”) Chinese person who thinks all Black people are poor and whatnot.” Little did I know, that I was the small-minded jackass! At the time of our conversation, I was unaware of the two meanings of the word 读书.
读书: 看书 (to read a book)/学习 (to study).
看书: to read a book
There are many more, but I’ll get to those in a different post. Right now, I need to haul ass to class!