Embrace the Embarrassing Moments | The real meaning of ‘not a good meaning’

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. Today’s story especially hits home for me – I’ve definitely made the same sort of mistake more than once!


During the first time I was working in China (when my Mandarin was pretty much non-existent), I went out to dinner with one of my Chinese friends. The food we ordered in the restaurant was slow to arrive, and when my friend asked the waitress what was going on, she apologized and said ‘不好意思’ (bù hǎo yì si), which I understood to mean ‘not a good meaning’, which I then thought might mean something like ‘it doesn’t look good’… so maybe something terrible happened to the chef? The food got burnt? Who knows, but the food came eventually, and was delicious.

A few days later, when studying with my language exchange partner, I tried using my new slice of vocabulary to explain a grammatical error to her by saying ‘这是不好意思’ (zhè shì bù hǎo yì si) (I thought I was saying ‘this doesn’t have a good meaning/doesn’t sound right’), but she kept saying ‘you shouldn’t feel bad!’ in English. I thought that perhaps she thought I was taking her mistake as a personal insult… After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, we both glossed over it and moved on. I only understood where I went wrong a few weeks later after cracking open a text book and seeing it in one of the practice dialogues, the penny dropped and I really did feel quite 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si)!

When starting out in a new language mistakes are inevitable, so it’s best to try to learn from them and not get too embarrassed. It’s good to try to absorb as much as you can from what you hear around you, but it’s also important to study the collocations and contexts of certain words and phrases. Just shrug off the initial embarrassment, learn from your mistakes and 加油 (jiā yóu)!

Thank you for your great story anonymous reader! Hope you’re enjoying your Amazon gift certificate!

I also hope that you’ve tried using FluentU!

If you’re interested in sharing your story about an embarrassing moment from learning Chinese, please read more here.

Look forward to your stories and comments!

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