Five Chinese Words I love (and you will, too!)

Learning Chinese has certainly taken a back seat to the growing to-do lists for ZJ and I. However, ZJ continues his concerted efforts to reinforce the language; he tacked post-its on the living room wall with characters and their English translation (no pinyin!).

I am often asked whether we use Chinese to communicate, and the answer, to some degree, is still yes. I would classify the Chinese we use as “romantic Chinese,” and “Chinese small talk.” AMWF bloggers have mentioned boyfriends and husbands had a hard time with “that little four-letter word,” but ZJ never feared uttering “我爱你.” Regardless of what little new vocabulary I have picked up, the following are five words/phrases I am fond of (and you will be too):

1. 没办法 (Méi bànfǎ)

Packed like a sardine on public transportation in China? Brave enough to venture out during Golden Week where 人山人海, the crowds stretch from the mountains to the sea? (My students translated 人山人海 for me as people mountain, people sea, and could not fathom why I had no inkling what they were blabbering on about.) If nothing can be done or you can’t do anything about a particular situation, this one is for you.

没办法 works seamlessly in our stateside lives. Shoppers, drivers, customers [insert most people here] are impatient a**holes, oh well, 没办法. You could use 习惯 to express a similar sentiment: that you’re accustomed to this, but being used to something and the inability to do anything denote two very contrasting entities. Put 没办法 to use in any situation that is out of your hands, and see how it can aptly describe so many situations.

This is why I am so fond of 没办法: its situational application is endless, and you will hear it used endlessly throughout a Chinese conversation.

2. 意思意思/小意思 (Yìsi yìsi/Xiǎoyìsi)

Although the words composing these phrases are not new to me, the unconventional uses of the phrases are. 意思 conventionally means “meaning.” When doubled or accompanied by “小,” Teacher Zhang said these phrases are used to respond to someone who has thanked you for doing them a favor. Said favor is so insignificant, and thus unworthy of such gratitude. A modest, humble offering on par with “don’t mention it” in English.

3. 睡懒觉 (Shuìlǎnjiào)

I love this phrase because ZJ and I are guilty of long 睡懒觉s. Translated as lounging around lazily in bed, it sounds less stigmatizing in Chinese than English. Why? If you’ve ever been to the Chinese countryside, whether to visit in-laws or stay with friends, the 炕 serves as more than a place to rest. During Chinese New Year at my in-laws, the kang functioned as a bed, couch, work station, futon, and a table. It’s a place for gathering in the same fashion a tv room, kitchen table or den is in an American household. And admit it, even if you are an early riser, there’s nothing like starting the day cuddling or nuzzling your SO!

4. 自娱自乐 (Zì yú zì lè)

I have no qualms admitting that I am weird, or eccentric. Eccentric serves as a more pleasant way to describe that I do not shy away from entertaining/amusing myself. At work, I hum a tune, sing along to the music blaring from the store’s speakers, and I even resort to repeating (not aloud…my eccentricity has to draw the line somewhere!) what I have just said to customers or coworkers to enhance my stagnating Chinese language practice. So the other night as I chuckled to myself, in the midst of drifting off to sleep, ZJ added 自娱自乐 to my post-it repertoire.

5. 老调重弹 (lǎodiào chóng tán)

Meaning to play/harp on the same old tune, and like phrase number four, a 成语, or Chinese idiom, ZJ and I find it grotesquely applicable to American life. No matter where or with whom we are conversing, the topics remain the same, and week after week, month after month do not diverge that much. Previous conversations weave themselves into present exchanges, and a sense of déjà vu washes over me. While living in Xi’an, conversations did get repetitive but in a very different manner. Where was I from, did I like living and working in China…I would have similar conversations with different people, but somehow, in a new language, environment, and culture, it did not feel most people I encountered in China were harping on the same old tune for the sake of having a tune to play.

Readers, I turn it over to you: What are a few of your favorite Chinese words/phrases? 

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12 thoughts on “Five Chinese Words I love (and you will, too!)

      • maklu001 says:

        It’s most certainly not a one way street. Your site and blog write ups add books to my teeming to-read lists! I just searched for Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians in the public library’s online catalog, and once I wrap up on Mo Yan, I will check it out 😃

      • Susan Blumberg-Kason says:

        Oh, my! I hope you love Crazy Rich Asians! And when China Rich Girlfriend comes out, that’s even better. I never thought I would like a book about all the insane wealth in Asia, but Kevin Kwan is hilarious and brilliant. I’ve read reviews that compare his books to Jane Austen but in an Asian setting. I agree! Let me know what you think after you read Crazy Rich Asians!

    • maklu001 says:

      成语 terrify me but not nearly as much as my grammar horrifies my husband (I manage to overlook Chinese grammar, mixing up even the patterns resembling the respective English ones).

  1. Marta says:

    I also love 没办法!But I don’t love that it is always used as an excuse (when the correct answer would be: I don’t feel like doing what you are asking me to do).

    麻烦 is also extremely useful!

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