I was about 7 when I realized I could understand Taiwanese. My mom was bragging about me incessantly to one of her friends — as Asian mothers do — in what I thought was Mandarin as I sat quietly in the back seat of the car. I eventually got annoyed and yelled, “Stop talking about me!” My mom whipped around and stared at me with a look of pure shock sprinkled with a bit of pride.
“Li tyanh wu?! (you understand?!)” she exclaimed.
Of course I understood! That was Mandarin. Right?
Wrong! Like many Taiwanese people who grew up in the U.S. like me, I have had the perplexing linguistic experience of using Taiwanese and Mandarin interchangeably, learning one language while unknowingly picking up the other.
Though Mandarin is taught in schools as the official language of Taiwan, the majority of Taiwanese people speak dai wan wei (臺灣話) — literally “Taiwan’s language” — in their daily lives. It is the mother tongue and variant of Hokkien, a blanket term to describe a group of Min Nan Chinese dialects. Mandarin is more common in bigger cities like Taipei and places like department stores, but Taiwanese is the sound of the night markets and bustling streets. It’s the language of older folks and more rural areas.
While Mandarin and Taiwanese certainly have similarities, the significant distinctions make me wonder how I ever confused them. Mandarin has four tones and Taiwanese has about eight, with more consonant sounds, glottal stops and nasal initials of “m” and “ng.”
There are also many Japanese-Taiwanese hybrid words developed under Japan’s rule of Taiwan in the 1900s that I now notice have Japanese characteristics.
Many Taiwanese words don’t have written characters, and pinyin — a romanized transcription of standardized Chinese — can’t reflect the language’s unique tones and sounds. Taiwanese is a language that I will never be able to fully master in pronunciation or understanding. This is a shame considering so many Taiwanese words capture the nation’s history, culture and colorful stories.
Here are five expressions that begin to scrape the surface:
1. Jit wanh tsan lei, gao wanh teng (一碗田螺，九碗湯)
This phrase is a great example of why I love Taiwanese. While certain phrases seem convoluted on the surface, they paint a vivid image that speaks volumes.
Jit wanh tsan lei, gao wanh teng literally translates to: “One bowl of snail, nine bowls of soup.” It’s a polite way to point out that something is lacking.
Tsan lei, or river snails, are usually sautéed with vegetables or put in soups in Taiwan. If you are eating tsan lei, then you expect to have a heaping amount on your plate or in your bowl. To dilute one bowl of snails with nine bowls of broth is like putting a single corn flake in a bowl of milk. It just doesn’t make sense.
An appropriate situation to use this phrase is when you’re cooking with a friend or a family member and they only buy one pound of fish or some other ingredient when the recipe calls for five—or during a family dinner when you’re enjoying a steaming bowl of beef noodle soup and only get one piece of tender meat in your portion.
You might say “jit wan tsan lei, gao wanh teng,” not because you want to whine, complain or call the cook stingy, but to draw attention to the obvious and say, “hey, this isn’t enough.”
Or you could say it to yourself after you realize you made a huge logistical mistake, like when I bought only three large pizzas to feed more than 20 friends on my fifteenth birthday. Oops.
2. Ti Gong tyanh gong lang (天公疼愚人)
God loves stupid people — or at least that’s what Taiwanese people believe. “Ti Gong” is the god of the heavens. “Tyanh” is the deep, considerate type of love that enables you to take care of and look after another person, like a mother’s love for her child. “Gong lang” means a stupid person.
Like many Taiwanese phrases, the meaning of this one is not as harsh as it sounds. “Stupid people” could actually mean lucky, honest or “hardworking people” depending on how it’s used. The phrase can be used as an exclamation of happiness, or as a way to comfort someone who is down on his or her luck.
If I just won a prize, I could exclaim, “Ti gong tyanh gong lang!” to mean “Wow, god’s really looking out for me!” or simply, “I got lucky!”
Or, if a friend just lost a job and is going through a difficult time, then saying “Ti Gong tyanh gong lang,” could be uttered as words of encouragement. In this instance, it could be used to mean “God rewards honest people,” or “Things will get better because you’re a good person,” making it most similar to the phrase, “Good things happen to good people.”
But be careful not to use the phrase when acknowledging other people’s successes — like receiving a promotion — because that implies you think they lucked out and didn’t earn it based on their own merits.
3. Kae bo (雞婆)
Here’s where Taiwanese gets weird, but also interesting. The literal translation of “kae” is chicken and “po” is grandma. But the word isn’t a quirky insult for the elderly, it actually means aggressively nosy.
My mom likes to use this word to describe my dad when she’s picking out what furniture to buy and she thinks he’s getting overly involved.
The characters for “kae po” didn’t exist, but the Taiwanese translations of “chicken” and “grandma” sound exactly like “kae po,” so Taiwanese people took those characters, applied it to the word and said “good enough.” Call it lazy or call it innovative. Either way, I think it’s pretty ingenious and cool. Hundreds of characters are used like that in Taiwanese, making it nonsensical to those who don’t speak Taiwanese, but like an inside joke to those who do.
4. Gong gu gyanh dou tei (愚龟走倒退)
I can’t count the number of times I committed to eating healthy one day and then binge-ate ice cream the very next. The moment I finish that last scoop, all I can say is, “Aw man, gong gu gyanh dou tei.”
The phrase literally means “stupid turtle going backwards,” and is another example of how Taiwanese isn’t as nasty or rude as it seems. Like phrase No. 2, calling someone “stupid” isn’t necessarily an insult when used in this context. To see a turtle moving backwards means to recognize that you or someone else is off track, going off the rails or figuratively moving backwards in life.
It can be used as innocently as describing people who binge-watched Netflix immediately after they promised to cut down on their screen time, or in more serious situations like a life crisis.
For instance, if you have a friend who has made a series of bad decisions that resulted them in not being as focused at school or work, then you can whip them back into shape by saying, “Gong gu gyanh dou tei.” Don’t worry, if they are Taiwanese, they’ll know you’re not trying to call them stupid.
5. Hee hee hng hng (Hee hee 嗯嗯)
Like most mothers, my mom often calls me on the phone to ask how my day is going, whom I’m with or what I’m doing. And like most daughters, I sometimes reply tersely with, “good,” “nothing,” “yeah,” “mhm,” or even “eh” (sorry, mom). At that point, my mom usually gets frustrated with me and accuses me of being “hee hee hng hng.”
The phrase means unresponsive, incoherent and “to ignore” all at once. The expression is interesting because it is based off the sounds made while ignoring or being unresponsive to someone, like English’s “mhmm,” or “blah,” But you would never say “hee hee hng hng,” about your own speech because then you would be insulting yourself. “Hee hee hng hng” is the insult equivalent of using an irritating voice to impersonate someone, mixed with the simplicity of “mhmm.” To make it more confusing, hee hee doesn’t have a written character, simply because there are no characters that make that sound.
Be careful, though, because confusing hee hee hng hng with “hee hee ha ha” (哈哈) is a disastrous mistake. Both are bad, but while the first implies someone is being annoyingly unresponsive, the other suggests someone is useless and is wasting his or her life.
That’s the great thing about culture: recognizing differences and yearning for full expression through language can help you appreciate the culture you already have. As my knowledge of Taiwanese deepens, so does my appreciation for my motherland and its complex history.
Whether your family’s from Taiwan or not, I hope this list does the same for you.