Learning Chinese is intimidating. Some tourists in China aren’t even willing to try for fear of saying the wrong thing. The following are true stories from my life.
While giving an introduction to the different kind of dances of the Dai Minority group, what my teacher actually said was: “This group of dances includes the Elephant Foot (xiàng jiǎo) Drum Dance…”
Giggling about the ridiculous image in my head, I had to ask: “The banana (xiāng jiāo) dance? How can there be a banana dance?”
That same week I came back to my room to find my roommate in a bad mood. “Ugh I’ve been working on getting this form (biǎo gé) filled out all day!” she exclaimed.
This statement left me very confused, so I had to clarify “You and your cousin (biǎo gē) have been doing what now?”
When I was having a tough time, my friend came into my room and sympathetically said “You have really born hardship.”(chī kǔ nài láo)
But thinking of the quesadilla I’d eaten for dinner, I just thought, “Why is Cat telling me that I have eaten bitter cheese?” (chī kǔ nǎi lào)
Then there was the time I ordered a veggie burger… And was awarded with a salad on a bun. Or the time I ordered a margarita and got a full glass of tequila with salt on the rim. Or asked for hot sauce and got black pepper.
Last but not least, a classic mispronounced Chinese phrase is one that almost every traveler will want to say: “I want to see pandas (xióng māo)!”
But to several foreigners’ chagrin, and their Chinese friends’ delight, the response could well be “What? Looking at chest hair (xiōng máo) sounds disgusting!”
Share your silly mistranslations in the comments!