Rarely does a day go by that I don’t find myself in a Chinese taxi or convenience store nodding like I understood what I just heard or taking a 50-50 stab in the dark that my answer might be right. No secrets here. I’m a language faker.
But this story isn’t about me . . . I have this friend . . .
My friend, like all of us who routinely bumble the Chinese language, went through the phase of learning that I refer to as the “Confident Moron Phase.” It comes very early on in the learning process and is marked by a blatant overestimation of actual ability partnered with an unfounded willingness to keep trying despite public perception or personal embarrassment. It’s two phases before the “Broken Quitter Phase” and ironically people who can remain Confident Moron’s for extended periods ultimately become the most fluent.
The rest of us secretly despise them.
My friend . . . we’ll call him Moonbeam just for fun . . . was a teacher. Like many young, handsome teachers he naturally caught the eye of several of his Chinese students of the female persuasion. In actuality, handsomeness is often only a minor variable since frankly . . . we all look alike, and we all look like movie stars. For example, I personally have been told I look a lot like George Cluney by some of my most perceptive and intelligent Chinese friends. The same friends, however, tempered my swollen ego by also telling me I look a lot like Mr. Bean.
Moonbeam (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Brad Pitt . . . and the Grinch who stole Christmas) was invited to join one of his young female students and her parents for dinner at their home. Feeling confident that her intentions were simply in the interest of fostering an authentic cultural exchange and excited to try out his newly learned Chinese, he accepted her generous offer.
It was at that dinner that he made the best language faker mistake I have heard of to date.
She prepared a traditional Chinese favorite, best translated into English as “spare ribs”. Prepared just right they are small pieces braised pork that are fall off the bone tender and downright delicious. Prepared wrong they can still be the most palatable dish of an awkward cultural exchange dinner, outweighing pancreas, frog ovaries or any kind of intestines by a ton.
It’s worth knowing how to order so here is your Chinese lesson for the day . . .
Spare Ribs = “Paigu”
If, you’re not accustomed to Chinese phonetics (pinyin) try pronouncing it “pie goo”, as in the best part of an apple pie. That should get you close enough as long as you’re sitting in a restaurant that specializes in “pie goo” (the spare ribs not the pie), however I should warn you that used out of context and in the wrong tone the sounds “pie goo” may also sound something like “expose your sister-in-law”. So . . . you know . . . be careful. Especially if you’re traveling with your sister-in-law.
Moonbeam had recently learned to say “paigu” and like any rookie language faker with an arsenal of new vocab words he was eager to test it out. In an effort to raise the stakes he learned the best way to say “delicious” as well. Everyone knows how to say “hao chi” (tastes good). That’s what they teach you as soon as you land in China. He needed a better way. More expressive. Less cliche. An impressive word that captures more of the senses and more importantly a word that most newby foreigners wouldn’t use. He found it.
Broadly translated it means something like “fragrant and delectable, not only delicious but a treat to partake of” (try pronouncing it “how shong” but again understand that you may actually be saying “nice elephant”)
As they ate, Moonbeam knew his moment had come. Turning to his student’s father he complimented his daughter’s dinner.
“Your daughter’s spare ribs are fragrant and delectable.”
Let’s pause right there for a moment to explore the dynamics of the awkward cultural exchange. A sweet, young student anxious to show off her relationship with the handsome foreign teacher to her family. She is both excited yet nervous that her traditional Chinese parents will behave embarrassingly in front of her teacher or that her teacher will do the same in front of her parents. Two parents raised during the Cultural Revolution at which time America was enemy number one have now raised a daughter who has invited her Imperialist teacher into their home. An enthusiastic young teacher trying to make small talk with a very limited number of words.
This one monumental sentence could serve as such a bridge across the cultural gap. Complimentary, encouraging, disarming and potentially even charming. It was absolutely the best thing he could say.
Which is why he was so confused by the reaction of his student and her father. His eyes were instantly as wide as the dishes they were eating from and her face went pale. You see in a hero’s effort to break the barriers, ease the tension and instill good faith between the Communists and Imperialists, my friend missed a single syllable.
“Your daughter’s ‘pigu’ is hao xiang”
He said “pigu” instead of “paigu”. If you’re having trouble try pronouncing it “pee goo” and know that no matter how horrible your accent is it is almost guaranteed that nearly every Chinese listener will hear the same word . . . and laugh . . . unless that listener is the father of the young female student who has invited you into their home.
“Pie goo” means “spare ribs”. “Pee goo” means “bottom.” Not the “opposite of top” kind of bottom. The “body part you sit on” kind of bottom. My friend looked squarely into the eyes of a suspicious Chinese father and with far greater confidence than the situation merited said,
“Your daughter’s hindquarters are fragrant and delectable.”
I love that story because it reminds me to keep making mistakes.
And just in case you’re wondering if my “friend” is actually me, here is the dead giveaway that he is, in fact, not. Today, more than 15 years later, Moonbeam speaks more fluently in Chinese than any foreigner I have ever met.
I secretly despise him . . . and respect him greatly.
For more on the Adventures of a Language Faker . . . go here
- Confessions of a Language Faker
- How Not to Get 28 Enormous Hickeys on Your Back
- You Want Birds With That?