5 Chinese phrases I wish we had in English

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The author with her cousins at a family gathering in the ’80s. (Photo courtesy Christina Twu)

Growing up in a Mandarin-speaking household, I always knew I could count on my family tongue to express what I couldn’t in English.

For Chinese-Taiwanese-American families like mine (and Eddie Huang’s of “Fresh off the Boat” fame) most of what I heard growing up were from the mouths of Chinese matriarchs — a feisty auntie, a sassy mom, a scary restaurant boss. These women had no time for niceties. They would pass tiger judgment and pounce on anyone walking their direction. They threw their words around like darts: this person was too loud, lazy, too wild; they stink, they’re crazy, wrong, or they are just too much. But while these words often stung, they were delivered with equal parts suspicion, warmth and humor.

Though I can’t pay homage to the 300-some other Chinese dialects and languages besides Mandarin (including Cantonese, with these unparalleled proverbs captured by artist Ah To), I like to believe they come from the same spirit: the Chinese trinity of judgment, humor and family love.

But mostly, I can just vouch for my own experience as a Federal Way-reared American-born Chinese (ABC). Here is a smattering of it: five Mandarin Chinese phrases the English language should take a cue from:

1. Mò míng qí miào ()

According to the Pin Pin Chinese dictionary, the closest direct translation into English for this expression is “I can’t make heads or tails of this,” but it also works as an adjective meaning baffling or puzzling.

The literal character-by-character translation is mò ( ), meaning “is not,” “cannot” or “do not”; míng () (title, position, rank, name); () translating to “that, her, its”; then there’s miào (), which means clever, mysterious, subtle and exquisite.

In separate characters, this almost sounds flattering, but taken together, this phrase is like the Chinese “WTF,” but more polite. Or more aptly, as my friend put it in Chinglish, “The way my friend is behaving is really mòmíngqímiào.” It’s a statement wrapped within a question.

“It’s like, ‘Why is this person acting like this?’”

Because they are mòmíngqímiào. Duh.

2. Hú lǐ hú tū ()

The author's hú lǐ hú tū father falling down after skiing for the first time on Snoqualmie. (Photo courtesy Christina Twu)
The author’s hú lǐ hú tū father falling down after skiing for the first time on Snoqualmie. (Photo courtesy Christina Twu)

Definitions vary from slap-happy, to muddle-headed, groggy and confused, vague and indistinct, to scatterbrained.

A term used to describe a foolish dreamer, a drunkard or someone with pregnancy brain!

Amy Tan’s version in “Joy Luck Club” describes it as a mystic “dark fog” that envelopes people — something to fear greatly.

Does forgetting my keys mean I have been swallowed by the dark fog of “hú lǐ hú tū”? I may never know.

3. Fàn tǒng (饭桶)

How the author ate rice in the '80s. (Photo courtesy of Christina Twu)
How the author ate rice in the ’80s. (Photo courtesy of Christina Twu)

Fàn tong,” or “Rice Bucket,” was my dad’s nickname in school, literally, because he was often seen stuffing his face with rice. Naturally, I learned the Rice Bucket way, and became Rice Bucket, Jr.

As an adult, I found out this had a derogatory meaning. All a rice bucket does is hold rice. Therefore, a rice bucket is also pretty darn useless.

Regardless, I stand tall and proud. I’ve been hustling as a container of rice since the 1980s.

4. Chuī niú (吹牛)

They tell grand stories, use hyperbole liberally, and they always seem to come out on top at the end of the story. These are people you know who will frequently “chuī niú.”

Imagine air being blown into a cow. This is literally what “chuī niú” means. Inflating oneself, which in English, is just plain bragging. You could compare it to the American expression “full of hot air.”

A few more popular, colorful variations can provide more detail on how to blow air into a cow. For example, “chuī niú bī” — blowing air into a cow’s vagina — or the less vulgar “chuī niú pī,” blowing onto a cow hide (a storied expression).

But beware. Just “niú bī” or “cow’s vagina” on it’s own is slang for “bitchin’” or “f***in’ awesome.” Add “bī” to anything and it just doubles the impact of the expression. Yep, misogyny is universal.

5. Āiyā (啊呀)

Above all Chinese expressions inscrutable to the Western ear is āiyā — used in both Mandarin and Cantonese.

It can take the place of sighing or “tisk”-ing, while shaking one’s head (“Āiyā, this is the third time she has made everyone pay for her dinner. I am so embarrassed for her.” Puts head in hands). I’ve also heard a longer “āi-yoooo” to deepen the “tisk-ing” expression to a level that questions whether this person or action can be redeemed.

It can mean “damn!” when you’re running late, or “f**k!” should you drop a hammer on your foot.

Like “OH. MY. GOODNESS,” it can be an interjection of shock (“Aiya! You’re not black?”).

It can express wonder such as in how we use “wow” (“Aiyaaaa, I can’t believe it’s not butter.”) Or adoration of something tiny or extraordinarily cute or sometimes both! (“Aiyaaaaa! I want to squeeze!). (See also Tagalog’s unparalleled “gigil” to express feelings of cute aggression).

There are so many specific and non-sequitur applications of “āiyā,” in the U.S., as MC Jin raps about:

It’s like he says: “Everybody got a catch phrase — one we gotta own.”

And sometimes, like a joke that loses its humor when you over-explain it, Chinese expressions and their multiple dimensions might just be best left a little misunderstood.

3 Comments

  1. That’s the beauty of language. Each has its own nuances of expression. Enjoyed reading this article!

  2. Insightful and humorous – thank you. In my mixed-language family we also sometimes have to flip back-and-forth when a one language just doesn’t have the right word. Appreciate seeing the Mandarin example!

  3. haha, my family is cantonese, and i remember my parents always telling me as a child, you are so lan ju 懶豬, aiyaaa. This article reminds me so much of my childhood!

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