You Want Birds With That? Humbling Moments for a Language Faker

I got blasted with a dose of my own indignance this week.  

Chinese is tonal.  If you haven’t tried to learn it then that means nothing to you.  It’s pointless trivia, like “celery has negative calories” or “bats always turn left when they exit a cave”.  All true (verified via the internet) but knowing it adds zero value to your life (maybe negative . . . like celery . . . and calories).  If you have tried to learn Chinese however, then the overwhelming significance of these three words just made you vomit a little bit in your mouth.

A Quick Chinese Lesson for the Vomitless:
If you say “ma” it means “mother” (stink – Chinese is easy! what are you whining about?).  However, if you say “ma” it means “horse” and if you say “ma” it means “anesthesia” and if you say “ma” it means “hemp” and if you say “ma” it means “tingly and numb” and if you say “ma” it means “sesame” and if you say “Ma” you may be speaking to a guy named Mr. Ma . . . or you may be trying to speak to Mr. Ma but you’re actually calling him “Mr. Sesame” and if you’re introducing him to your mother you may actually be saying “Hey Mr. Sesame this is my horse” or “this is my anesthesia” or “this is my hemp” for which you could be arrested and possibly executed (see here for more on that) all because you used the wrong tone.

It’s the most felt challenge of living as a foreigner in China.  Not so much the threat of execution but the daily, blood boiling, teeth grinding irritation of knowing that you are saying the right word and getting nothing but a blank stare.  I have seen some of the sweetest, tenderest, most loving souls I know transformed into screaming, blubbering freaks because the taxi driver just can’t understand their well rehearsed Chinese.


And the driver stares blankly because all he hears is, “Mother Street! Horse Street! Anesthesia Street! Can you please tell me how to get to Tingly and Numb Street?!”

Hence the vomit.

The result is a heavy dependence on context.  Maybe my tones are off but if I can get the surrounding words to make sense then generally the Chinese listener will graciously figure it out.  “OOHH – This is not really his horse, in fact she is not a horse at all . . . he probably means his mother.” However the Ma of all frustrations is when the context is crystal clear, the phonetics are spot on, the tones are just slightly off and there is still a total failure to communicate.  “I SO know that I am SO close so why can’t you understand me?!”

Checking into a hotel in Beijing last week I got the tables turned on me.  I was holding up the line as the front desk girl and I flipped through my family’s passport books searching for the right visas and stamps.  Her English was rough but I was catching most of it.  My Chinese was rougher but she was gracious.  Finally we got the visa issues settled and she looked me straight in the eye and said . . .

“How about birds?”

You know that moment when you have no clue what is going on but your mind races to make something up?  I got stuck there. I was certain I misheard her so I questioned, “I’m sorry?”


In about three seconds this was my thought process, *are there birds in the room? I don’t think I want birds in my room.  I’ve seen birds for sale on the street, do they sell birds here? Is there some type of giveaway that I don’t know about?  This is a holiday weekend, maybe they give birds to customers for Chinese National Day.  That would be really strange considering this is an airport hotel and most of the customers will be flying home soon.  Do they expect us to take birds home on the airplane with us? You can’t do that.  I know China’s basic view on animal rights is different than where I come from but really?  Birds?  In my suitcase?  They are so going to stop me at security.  I wonder what color they are.*

“I’m sorry . . . what?”

She repeated, “Birds.”

Blank stare.

“Do you want one or two birds in your room.”

I was so thoroughly confused.  *My two year old son will never go to sleep if we have any birds in our room.  Why would you put birds in my room?!*

I could sense her frustration but still smiling she said, “Chuang.”

“OOHH  Beds!”

Dear China:  I’m sorry for snapping at your taxi drivers and thinking bad thoughts about you because you don’t understand my tones.  You win.

For more about the pain and joy of learning Chinese go here:
Confessions of a Language Faker
The Diarrhea Clinic and Why I Think it’s Funny


  1. I was there for this experience and I still laughed at this post. Good stuff.

  2. Jen — you were the inspiration for this post (I mean, except for the bird girl). The moment I told you I thought oooh – that will blog. I will now screen all blog posts through you. Thanks for accepting that position.

  3. Ha! That was great. We just returned from our first trip to China. One story we still talk about is when our guide took us to a restaurant for hot pot. After we were all seated he asked us to come pick out our sausages. We looked at each other quizzically and then the guys were volunteered to go make a selection. So we followed the guide wondering how in the world we were supposed to pick sausages for hot pot. A moment later we were at the table full of … sauces to choose from.

  4. Great post–so true!
    Love your writing style!

  5. I was saying “Qing wen” for a year when I should have been saying “Qing wen.” People looked very confused when I politely asked them if I could ask them a question. Turns out I was asking if I could kiss them. BTW, ask the other Kylie about her experience walking into a Chinese pharmacy and loudly announcing that she needed medicine for her herpes.

  6. Laughed my hinny off as I recalled similar conversations…

  7. I laughed out loud several times during this post (and comments!) Ah, the wonders of miscommunication.

    A lot of times when I catch myself making a mistake in Chinese, I try to imagine what it would be like in English – for instance, if I say “bi zi” instead of “bei zi,” I start thinking about whether I’d understand someone who said “cap” instead of “cup” in English. But with tones, well, my attempts at empathy get a little lost! (Though our crazy grammar and spelling and huge vocabulary of words to learn how to use exactly right certainly balances things out a bit for the Chinese person learning English) 😉 I wonder if this habit is a consequence of being a TCK with parents who taught ESL/EFL, or if it comes from loving language (though not necessarily loving learning tones)… or am I just weird?


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