Archive for the ‘Chinese language’ Category

Talking about snow in Chinese

For those of you stuck at home on the east coast of the U.S., or elsewhere in the world that is not California, here is the adorable Jessica Beinecke of Crazy Fresh Chinese introducing some snow-related terms in Chinese:

If you don’t know about Crazy Fresh Chinese, you should. Jessica translates slang and other useful terms into Chinese and films herself explaining them. Check out her YouTube channel, website and Facebook page.


Happy Year of the Horse!

Tonight marks the end of the Year of the Snake and the entrance of the Year of the Horse. The World of Chinese has a nice post explaining how to behave to increase your chances of a lucky horse year.

On the Chinese Internet, well-wishers share greetings and cards to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The Year of the Horse allows for especially creative greetings, as the word “horse” is used in various Chinese idioms. A common New Year greeting this year is “马到成功!” which is an idiom wishing someone success (it translates loosely as “Ride your horse to success” and comes from a story dating back to the Qin Dynasty).

The phrase, “马上” literally means, “on a horse” but is used in everyday language to mean “immediately” (because, of course, once upon a time in China, the fastest way to get somewhere was by horse). So this year, “马上” means both “in the Year of the Horse” and “immediately.” Greeting cards are using this to wish people good things, immediately, in the horse year.

This image and others like it are circulating in online forums in China to send wishes for things which are notoriously difficult in China; the image above sends wishes for the recipient to “have a new car, have a vacation, have money, and find a partner” on the back of the Horse.

Happy Year of the Horse! May you each ride your own horse to success, whatever that means to you.


“Ai-ya!”: 24-Carat Chinese Gold

A friend forwarded this to me in an email and I have to share it because I think it is genius. “Ai-ya” truly is one of the best phrases ever invented:

I had a craving for a sweet taste of childhood the other day; so I went shopping for a can of grass jelly. I was putting said treat into my cart and looking for my Ranch 99 VIP card when a woman with three kids in tow ran into my cart.

At that moment, both of us said, “Ai-ya.” The children giggled, she apologized, and I quickly replied, “M’sai. No apology needed.” Although it was a minor exchange, I later realized that Ai-ya is more than just two characters; it is part of the spirit of being Chinese … in a moment of surprise I could’ve said just about anything – my reaction was to say Ai-ya. I was surprised that I would instinctively use my mother’s tongue because I’ve always known that I don’t speak Cantonese well. No matter how far removed I’ve become as an American, there is something at my core that is Chinese.

I decided to conduct informal research about Ai-ya. First, I went to a national bookstore chain to review its Chinese language materials. I thumbed through all the Chinese language materials, but couldn’t find any vocabulary drill including Ai-ya. Seeing that the publishers of tourist books were not going to be helpful, I decided to observe its use in the community. I clipped my cell phone to my belt, grabbed a couple of bakery pink boxes and sat around San Francisco ‘s Portsmouth Square drinking 7-Up and eating dim sum . Lo and behold, I heard Ai-ya used in a variety of ways.

Based on my personal experience and this observation, I’ve developed a personal understanding of Ai-ya. Aiya is 24-carat Chinese gold. Ai-ya is more than just two characters; it is part of the spirit of being Chinese and may even go back to antiquity. It is used wherever the Chinese have been in the diaspora of the last sesquicentennial.

How you say Ai-ya can say volumes about your state of mind. For example, when the problem is minor, I can say “Ai-ya” in a short/curt manner. However, when I am extremely stressed, I can draw it out to nearly five seconds.

As you read the following ways Ai-ya can be used, the mental image to solicit is to picture any of the mothers from Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club”. For those who have met anyone in my family, you can picture one of my relatives instead:

Surprise: “Ai-ya! A surprise party for me?”

Joy: “Ai-ya! You got 5 out of 6 in Lotto!”

Distaste: “You expect me to drink that herbal medicine concoction of yours? Ai-ya!”

Doubt: “Do I have to wear that lemon yellow/lime green sweater my mother made? I wonder if she would notice if I accidentally’ donated it to
Goodwill? Ai-ya.”

Awe: “Your son got accepted into Harvard Law School !?! Ai-ya!”

Irritation: “Clean your room. Ai-ya! Why you live like a pig?”

Large astonishment: “Ai-ya! She switch majors from Business to Art History!”

Disapproval: “Report Card-5 A, 1 B? Always a B in Math. Ai-ya.” (Actual quote from my mother when I was a sophomore in high school.)

Shock: “What? Ketchup on Yang Chow Fried Rice … Ai-ya!”

Outrage: “Never clean your rice cooker with that steel scouring pad! Ai-ya!”

Verge of internal combustion: “I can’t deal with the family asking when and if I’m getting married! Ai-yaaa!”

Ai-ya is an all-purpose phrase that comes from deep in the soul. Ai-ya is both simple and complex: on one hand it is a couple of Chinese characters, on the other hand it can be a whole speech describing the state you are in. Ai-ya says, “I’m afraid”, “I’m in pain”, “I don’t believe it.” It is an exclamation of exuberance, a shout of hurt, a cry of fear, and the reflex of being startled, and the embrace of joy.

It is unfortunate that English has no equivalent to Ai-ya. It saddens me that American English doesn’t afford me a fun phrase to emote. “Shucks”, “Darn,” “Shit,” and the plethora of other swear words cannot convey what Ai-ya can. So, I’m going to propose that we start an initiative for American English should grab on Ai-ya or the Yiddish “Oy” for our use.

So the next time you go to a teahouse for dim sum or decide to go shopping at an Asian market, listen to the lively banter as friends and families meet. It’s a wonderfully vibrant, alive community out there. Who knows, you just might get caught up the lyrical rhythm of the people.

(This essay has been passed around through email; the original author is unknown.)

Someone on YouTube even took it upon themselves to create a video explaining the term (it’s in Cantonese, but Ai-ya is equally powerful in Mandarin and, I believe, a number of other Chinese dialects.)