Chinese is a Five-Year Lesson in Humility. At Least Zhibo Makes it Fun

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2:59 AM HKT, Sat June 24, 2017 4 mins read

Week 2. I’m still here. I’ve gone through more glasses of whiskey than I’m comfortable admitting, I budget time each day to practice god-awful Chinese pop songs, and I’m spending more on 4G data than I would in America.

I do this so you don’t have to.

Hello, I’m Taylor. In case you missed my introductory column last week, I’m here to use live streaming (zhibo) to practice Chinese — which might have the unintended consequence of making me Internet-famous. Here’s my fan counter:

Zhibo has got me thinking a lot about the following quote:

Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility; after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.

This depressingly accurate bit of insight comes to us from Professor David Moser, the academic director of CET Beijing. In my case, it’s been about seven years of on-and-off studying and three years of actually living in China and taking Chinese seriously; and while I’m not entirely sure how much humility I’ve gained, I can confidently report that my Chinese remains abysmal.

My version of this sentiment is a little less elegant, but still gets the job done: when someone back home asks if I’m fluent yet, I explain that while the goal of intensively studying French or German for a few years is to attain the ability to comfortably communicate, the main thing you learn from a few years of studying Chinese is that you’re dumb, you’ll always be dumb, and you’re wasting your f@#king time.

Of course, I don’t always feel that way; it goes in cycles – from “I’ve Done It! I Know Chinese!” to I’mDoneWithThisThereIsNoGod over the weeks and months. But… that was before I got into live streaming. With the help of the information superhighway, I get to go from feeling like I’ve mastered the world’s hardest language to knowing for absolute certain that my brain doesn’t work right 5-10 times a minute.

Ah, progress.

If you’re not familiar with the language, Chinese is made up of thousands of characters, all of which are forced to share just over 400 syllables. Yes, those syllables have different tones, but that doesn’t change the fact that the twelve tonal variants of the words “li,” “shi,” and “yi” are sharing literally hundreds of Chinese characters. That means that Chinese is by necessity an unbelievably contextual language.

Now, lest you worry that I’ve tricked you into reading yet another “Yup, Chinese is and continues to be difficult” article, let me back up and explain how this relates to live streaming. No matter where you are, the Internet is the Internet; that is to say, people use condensed, abbreviated, pun-based, and otherwise confusing language. My parents just recently started using “lol” in a brave attempt to improve their Internet language skillz, and frankly, my experience with trying to engage with hundreds of Chinese netizens all at once has made me realize I may have been a little hard on them back in the day.

Live streaming is a great way to practice Chinese, no question – in the same way that being dumped into a shark tank covered in steak sauce is a *great* way to get real good at swimming right quick. Here’s a common greeting I see when I stream in the morning:


Let me save you the new tab and explain this for you. We’re dealing with clever punsters (pun-dits?) who are using two different types of Chinese-character-humor in one handy example. 古德猫宁 doesn’t mean anything – ancient moral cat tranquil, translated word-by-word – but the pronunciation goes goo-duh mao-ning.

(If you’re not getting it, try saying it out loud.)

So, in reality, the ancient tranquility of moral cats is actually a clever little phoneticization of the phrase “good morning.”

But what about the second part? If you’ve already plugged it into a translate app you’ll notice that it means nothing…

…OK, it doesn’t mean crooked nuts. It’s more like crooked fruit benevolent, and sounds like why gwoh ren.

To get this one, you need to know a bit of Chinese. Specifically, this term:

外国人, or “out-of-country person.” Foreigner.

This is the more formal of the two main ways Chinese address foreigners, and it is pronounced “wài guó rén.”

歪果仁 is pronounced “wāi guǒ rén.”

(1st tone, 2nd tone, 3rd tone, 4th tone)

And here we come to something of a paradox: although every Chinese person will tell you quite emphatically that the same base syllable spoken with different tones signifies a totally different word, no one has any difficulty getting this joke that entirely depends on your ability to recognize that different-tone-syllables are still fundamentally similar words.

Circling back to the whole “lessons in humility” thing, live streaming is helping me realize that nothing teaches you how little you know about a language faster than trying to keep up with it on the Internet. Every day, I start reading some message with unearned confidence only to realize that it’s some new joke or play on words I don’t get yet. Thankfully, my streaming experience thus far has been remarkably free of trolls (more on that in future columns), and most people are more than happy to explain the jokes to me – once they’ve finished laughing, that is.

Some of my favorites:

  • Using 88 to say goodbye: 8 is pronounced “ba,” so 88 = “ba-ba” or “bye-bye.”
  • Thanking someone with 3Q: 3 is pronounced “san,” so “san Q” or “thank you.”
  • Asking someone “好欧的啊又,” pronounced “how-oh-de-a-yo,” or “how old are you.”
  • Telling someone to “狗带,” which is pronounced “gou dai,” or “go die.”
  • Asking someone “好蛙鱼,” which is pronounced “how wah you.”
  • Using 666 to mean someone’s language is very good or very fluent (not a satanic curse) because 6 = 六 = liù, and liú = 流 = flow, i.e. very good
  • Expressing surprise with “偶买噶哒,” which is pronounced “oh-my-ga-da”
  • Addressing everybody with “艾瑞巴蒂,” which is pronounced “eye-ray-ba-dee”

In what I imagine will end up being a pretty common theme of this column, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. My journey through the 蒙圈 (mengquan, literally, “confused circle”) is an interesting one, but most certainly puts the kibosh on any far-flung dream I ever had of being an *expert* in Chinese – in the 21st century, at least. But on the bright side, my usage of Internet-y terms in my social media statuses has occasionally started to confuse my older Chinese friends and colleagues.

And at the end of the day, isn’t that the dream?

Illustrations by Marjorie Wang

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