As part of our Embrace the Embarrassing Moments series, we feature a reader’s story about an embarrassing moment from when they were learning Chinese.
This week: a story about how one reader broke the ice with his girlfriend’s mom.
Recently I was chatting with my girlfriend and her mother. My girlfriend speaks great English, but her mother speaks no English at all, which is great because it forces me to use Mandarin to express even complex ideas that I might otherwise switch to English to talk about. The conversation topic was marriage, and I was trying to explain to them that in America, many women change their surname to that of the husband when they get married. I later found out that the best way to say this would be 随夫姓 (suí fū xìng), which literally means “to follow the husband’s surname.”
However, I didn’t know that at the time, so I said something like, 在美国大部分女人结婚之后变姓 (zài měiguó dà bùfen nǚrén jiéhūn zhīhòu biàn xìng). At the moment it made perfect sense to me. 变 (biàn) means to change and 姓 (xìng) means “surname” so it seemed the perfect way to say “change surname.” However, 变姓 (biàn xìng) isn’t a word in Mandarin. What is a word, is 变性 (biàn xìng) which is pronounced exactly the same, with two fourth tones. Except this biàn xìng means “to change sex.” So basically, I told my girlfriend and her mother, “In America, after getting married, most women change their sex.”
This little mistake exemplifies a few principles I’ve come to understand in my journey of learning Mandarin. One is the importance of being able to understand characters. Even though you don’t need to be able read characters to speak, they can really help you to understand what you are saying. This is especially important because of the huge amount of homophones in the language. In this situation I immediately understood my mistake once it was pointed out, because I’m familiar with 姓 and 性.
Another thing this conversation reminded me of is the danger of trying to make up your own words in Chinese. As a learner, it’s often necessary to do this to express yourself, and sometimes it works, but sometimes it can lead to embarrassing situations or misunderstandings. You just have to be careful and of course be ready to laugh at your mistakes.
As far as vocabulary goes, in the discussion which followed my mistake I learned a few new words. The first I already mentioned, 随夫姓 (suí fū xìng), which means for a woman to change her surname to that of her husband’s. The next word is 变性人 (biàn xìng rén) which means a transgender or transsexual person. And the final word is 人妖 (rén yāo) which is a less polite and perhaps even derogatory word for a transgender or transsexual person. You can see why it is impolite when you look at the last character 妖 (yāo) which means ghost or demon.
Thank you for your great story anonymous reader! Hope you’re enjoying your Amazon gift certificate!
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Look forward to your stories and comments!
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