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Chinese Expressions That Make You Sound Like a Native Speaker (Part 1)

MICHAEL HURWITZ

The Mandarin language might be thousands of years old, but like most languages out there, it’s evolving and adapting faster and faster these days to new social trends and phenomenons.


I proudly present the first in a series of articles detailing my favorite Chinese expressions, including old and new, formal and informal, useful and only-sometimes-useful. (Part 2 is here)


(FYI: if you need help pronouncing the pinyin for the expressions below, go to Yoyo Chinese's free video-based pinyin chart. It includes audio demonstrations for all Mandarin sounds and even video explanations on some of the more difficult ones: bit.ly/yoyochinesepinyinchart)


1. Wú suǒ wèi (无所谓)  – “it doesn’t matter” or “to be indifferent”


This is probably the idiom I use most often, to be honest. Roughly speaking it’s the “it’s all good” of Chinese, and you can use it whenever you have no particular preference about something.


I was getting my mobile phone fixed recently and while waiting one of the repair guys asked me what kind of women I like.


I thought it was a bit too personal of a question so I brushed it off, but he kept asking me, explaining that he sees local women with foreign men a lot. 


“Wú suǒ wèi (无所谓)”,  I said, hoping to placate him and end the questioning.


He thought it was hilarious and kept repeating it to his friends, which I loved – not only was I the not-stereotypical “lǎo wài (老外)”,  I was the funny one as well! 


There are first times for everything, I suppose.


Example:


A:  你周末要不要去杭州 (nǐ zhōu mò yào bú yào qù háng zhōu)?   - Do you want to go to Hangzhou this weekend?


B:  无所谓,你想去吗 (wú suǒ wèi, nǐ xiǎng qù ma)?  - I’m good either way, do you really want to go?


Best used when...


You’re just really indifferent about a choice or you can’t be bothered to show preference. If you’re trying to decide between restaurants with your friends, for instance, or anything for which you have no strong feelings either way.


2. Diǎo sī (屌丝)  – “loser” (don’t ask what the literal meaning is!)



"Diǎo sī (屌丝)"  is a relatively new term; it became popular on the Chinese internet in 2012, and entered wider public discourse last year.


It’s hard to translate into English but it essentially refers to the sort of self-declared male “losers” or “slackers” who, while they may not be lacking in intelligence or education, see themselves as unambitious, uncool and unable to land the sorts of jobs and partners they’ve been idolizing since childhood. 


A slightly better translation, actually, might be “neckbeard,” if only for its similarly colloquial and recent origins.  


What’s especially interesting is that it’s really only used by "diǎo sī (屌丝)"  themselves as a self-descriptor. You’ll rarely hear people mockingly call someone a "diǎo sī (屌丝)";  much more likely is a dateless young man lamenting his status and calling himself a "diǎo sī (屌丝)". 


It’s closely related to the increasing societal expectations of men in China – a "diǎo sī (屌丝)"  most certainly wouldn’t have the car/house/salary combo that is an almost de facto prerequisite for marriage these days.


Example:


A:  哎,我就是个屌丝 (āi, wǒ jiù shì ge diǎo sī)...   - Oh man, I’m such a neckbeard...


B:  得了!至少你有个女朋友. 连这个我都没有 (dé le! zhì shǎo nǐ yǒu ge nǚ péng yǒu. lián zhè ge wǒ dōu méi yǒu).   - Oh c'mon! At least you have a girlfriend. I don’t even have that.


Best used when...


You yourself are a "diǎo sī (屌丝)".  Otherwise you’ll look ridiculous and/or rude.


3. Yí pì gu (一屁股)  – “a butt of”



I just learned this one recently but it’s quickly become one of my favorites.


“Pì gu (屁股)”  literally means “butt” and is a fairly normal term, but when you say “yí pì gu (一屁股)”  you’re using it as a measure word – essentially saying “one butt-full of ____.”


It sounded absurd to me until I realized that we have a very similar saying in English: “a buttload of ____.”


Example:


A:  我欠了一屁股债.  真想哭 (wǒ qiàn le yí pì gǔ zhài. zhēn xiǎng kū).   - I owe a buttload of debt. It makes me want to cry.


Best used when...


You’re talking about debt “zhài (债)”.  As you can probably imagine I try to use this as a measure word as much as possible, but so far I’ve only found a few situations in which it is commonly used, most notably when talking about debt.


4. Zhuā kuáng (抓狂)  – “to be driven crazy” or “to freak out”



“Zhuā kuáng (抓狂)”  is a fun idiom because it tends to get used formally as well as informally. It literally means “to grab wild” but really just means to lose your temper or be driven crazy by something.


Basically it’s a nice, PG-rated way to say “to lose one’s sh*t.”


Interestingly I encountered this very early in my time in China, when I had a detestable boss in an English teaching gig.


One of the Chinese assistants confided in me that he drove her absolutely off the wall with his requests and strict standards, explaining that he made her “zhuā kuáng (抓狂)”  at least a few times per week.


I tried repeating the word to her and a nearby colleague giggled because she could infer exactly what we were talking about. At least my tones were on point!


Example:


A:   你为什么生气呢 (nǐ wèi shén me shēng qì ne)?  - Why are you angry?


B:  我的房东让我抓狂!我简直受不了了 (wǒ de fáng dōng ràng wǒ zhuā kuáng! wǒ jiǎn zhí shòu bù liǎo le)!  - My landlord is driving me crazy! I can't take it anymore!


Best used when...


You would usually use “to freak out” in English. Frustrating day-to-day situations, demanding bosses, or pretty much anything related to banks, air travel or getting your internet hooked up in China are all fair game!


5. Fán sǐ le (烦死了)  – “troublesome to the point of death"



This is a great one to know because it will help you understand the 死了 construction. “Sǐ (死)”  means “to die” and when you add “le (了)”  after it and a verb or adjective before it, you’re basically saying “[adj/verb] to death.”


Just like in English, it’s not meant to be literal, it just adds some emphasis to your point or complaint. When you say “I’m scared to death” you (hopefully) don’t mean it literally, after all.


Other common usages are “rè sǐ le (热死了)”  – hot as death, “è sǐ le (饿死了)  – starving to death, and “lèi sǐ le (累 死了)”  – tired to death.


“Fán sǐ le (烦死了)”  is my favorite though, as it’s a fantastic way to dismiss something you just don’t feel like doing.


Also because a lot of official processes in Mainland China are seriously complex and troublesome so you get a lot of good practice opportunities.


I could give you an example but it would most definitely "fán sǐ wǒ le (烦死我了)"  :)


Example:


A:  那个家伙又来让你帮忙了(nà ge jiā huo yòu lái ràng nǐ bāng máng le)?  - Is that guy asking for your help again?


B:  是啊, 他烦死了 (shì a, tā fán sǐ le)!  - Yeah, he's way too troublesome!


Best used when...


You encounter anything you just can’t be bothered to attend/deal with/think about.


Best said dismissively with a smirk on your face, and you can really emphasize the 2nd tone on 烦 (fán) by drawing it out really slowly, to show how 烦 (fán) going to the club/helping your cousin move/making your own vodka tonics is “fáaaaaaaan sǐ le” (rolls eyes excessively).


6. Kào pǔ (靠谱)  – “reliable,” “reasonable” or “trustworthy”



Chinese SWAT teams are widely seen as particularly “kào pǔ (靠谱)”,  especially when compared to ordinary police teams, whose members don't go through the same rigorous screening and selection process.


I guess it says something about my long-term-China-resident-cynicism that I find this funny, but “kào pǔ (靠谱)”,  usually meaning “reliable,” is a relatively new and trendy word in Mandarin, having only come into wide usage in the last couple years.


I love “kào pǔ (靠谱)”  because of its wide breadth of applications; you can really use it to describe any person or thing that you don’t have to worry about too much. 


A better English translation might be “legit” or “competent,” depending on the context.


The first time I heard it was from a friend who had studied in the US and was comparing the subway systems in DC and Shanghai. 


She judged the Shanghai metro much more “kào pǔ (靠谱)”,  which you’d probably agree with if you’ve ever had to walk up a broken, just-fix-it-already escalator in DC every day for 2 weeks.


Example:


A:  我不认识 Eric, 他这人怎么样啊 (wǒ bú rèn shì Eric, tā zhè rén zěn me yàng a)?   - I don’t know Eric. What kind of person is he?


B:  他很靠谱!非常准时,另外弹吉他弹得很棒 (tā hěn kào pǔ! fēi cháng zhǔn shí, lìng wài tán jí tā tán de hěn bàng)!  - He's legit! He is super punctual, not to mention he plays the guitar really well!


Best used when...


Wielded with little discretion – I swear I hear it more and more in casual conversation every month.


Check out Useful Expression Part 2 here!


Those are all the expressions I have for you this week. See if you can use a few of them over the weekend and tell me how that goes in the comments below! :) 

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MICHAEL HURWITZ spent six years in Shanghai doing the little things to help bridge the cultural and linguistic gap between China and the West. Now back in the United States studying business and Chinese, Michael enjoys reggae music, his hometown basketball team the Washington Wizards, and has a handful of tattoos he'd rather not explain.

Tue, 29 Jul 2014 02:30:00 GMT

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