Category Archives: Asia

A very abridged Chinese (Beijing) to Chinese (Taiwan) dictionary

I spend much of my life embarrassing myself in one form or another, but there is nothing quite so embarrassing as going to a place and thinking you speak the language only to draw blank stares. When I showed up in Taiwan earlier this year, I thought I spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese — only to learn that people in Taiwan have different words for just about everything. It was not the harsh, guttural, and “r”-inflected accent that gave away the fact that I learned all of my Chinese in Beijing; instead, it was the fact that I used the wrong word for everything. (The accent probably didn’t help, though.)

Language skills are very malleable, and my accent quickly veered toward the more mellifluous intonations of Taiwan. Expanding my vocabulary took a bit more effort. I gave up trying to order specific types of fish at sushi restaurants (all the fish words seem to be different in Taiwan, and, let’s be honest, I want the chef’s assortment anyway). I came to understand that the reason I could never find a trash can in Taipei was not only because there are basically no trash cans in Taipei, but also because I wasn’t using the right word for garbage. (It’s the same word, but pronounced differently. The difference in pronunciation does not explain the lack of trash cans, however.)

I spent much of the next four months chronicling every time people raised their eyebrows at me and said, “We don’t use that word here” or “What the heck are you saying?” I developed the following handy (but nowhere near comprehensive) dictionary to translate Mandarin Chinese as spoken in Beijing (putonghua 普通話) to Mandarin Chinese as spoken in Taiwan (guoyu 國語). I am sure some of these are wrong, and I am happy to take suggestions to add more.

I cannot guarantee that I will spare you any embarrassment, but at least you’ll know why you are embarrassed.

Updated/expanded 1/12/24 — they keep coming…

Trash垃圾 (pronounced: laji)垃圾 (pronounced: lese)
Public Transit公交車公車
Hotel酒店飯店 (saying 酒店 means something much seedier than a normal hotel, which I found out the hard way when I told everyone I was staying in a 酒店 for the first few nights when I arrived)
You’re Welcome (No Worries)不用不會
New (place name)新 (as in New Zealand, 新西蘭)紐 (紐西蘭)
Eat In在這吃內用
Pick a name起名 (pronounced qi-mingrrrrrrr)取名
Taxi出租車 (rental car)計程車 (meter car)
Bicycle自行車 (self-driven vehicle)腳踏車 (foot-stamping vehicle)
Phone signal信號訊號
Farmhouse for tourists農家樂土雞城
Draft beer扎啤生啤
Stir fry with random stuff you have around隨便炒黑白切
Pretty good挺好的蠻好的 (You can’t say 挺…的 in Taiwan, they think it’s weird)
Percentage成/百分之趴 (According to Wikipedia: “趴 as “percent” originates from Japanese パーセント pāsento. This usage is also unique to Guoyu”)
Good morning/good night早上好/晚上好早安/晚安
Profile picture頭像大頭貼
Charging pack充電寶行動電源
Scrolling on the phone玩手機滑手機 (no matter what phrasing you use, people do a lot of it in both places)
Software app軟件軟體
Potato土豆馬鈴薯 (土豆, or dirt-bean, means peanut in Taiwan. To be fair, they are both dirt-beans, of a sort)
Rollercoaster過山車 (passing-through-the-mountains car)雲霄飛車 (flying-through-the-clouds car)
Italian pasta意麵義大利麵 (意麵 somehow means an egg noodle dish from southern China, not Italian pasta)
Authentically local地道道地 (reverse, reverse!)
Electric scooter電動車 (electric-powered vehicle)Gogoro (a brand name)
Electric-powered car新能源汽車 (new energy car)電動車 (electric-powered vehicle)
Instant noodles方便面 (convenient noodles)泡麵 (soaked noodles)
To hire招聘誠徵
Tissues纸巾 or 餐纸衛生紙 (this means toilet paper in China, and it means all tissue related products in Taiwan. The lack of specificity here does not work in Taiwan’s favor)
Snail蜗牛(pronounced wo niu)蝸牛 (pronounced gua niu)
Ping pong乒乓球 (ping pong)桌球 (table tennis)

Myanmar: Cautious Optimism for Democracy

Near the top of a long, covered stairway leading to a golden monastery overlooking the administrative town of Kalaw in the hills of Myanmar’s southern Shan state, a Burmese man and I attempted to communicate. He spoke no English; I spoke no Burmese. He tried to say something. I didn’t understand. I tried to tell him that I didn’t understand; he didn’t understand. Then he said ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’, the global icon of opposition to military rule in Myanmar and head of the National League of Democracy (NLD) party, and I indicated that I knew her name. His face lit up and he broke out into a beaming smile, followed by attempts to aggressively shake my hand and express positive feelings in any way he could without actually being able to say anything that I would understand. For about ten minutes, this was the extent of our conversation, the only point of mutual understanding hidden between myriad ways to say “I don’t understand.”

If this were an isolated incident, I would have let it pass: I wanted to avoid a Thomas Friedman-esque understanding of political change based on the opinions of the first cab driver you encounter. (Important note: the first cab driver I met in Myanmar spoke great English and worked as a radio operator on ships all over the world. We had a great conversation. I learned a lot from him.) But throughout Myanmar, whether on the streets of Yangon or the hills of Kalaw — and in conversations with locals and foreigners alike — it became clear that this was far more systemic. Everywhere, everyone wanted to express similar feelings: “Aung San Suu Kyi — very good!” “I definitely voted for the NLD!” “The military gov’t is corrupt and stupid!” Etc.

Coming from China, whose central government is further cracking down on political dissent and activism, the open and frank discussion of politics and unreserved disdain for the previous era of military rule that pervades the streets of Myanmar is as foreign to me as fish-paste noodles for breakfast (delicious) or clear blue skies (also delicious). There seems to be a collective release among the population of pent up frustrations built up over 53 years of military or military-backed rule, unfair elections, violent suppression of resistance, and economic concentration in the hand of military elites.

But it is a cautious optimism: even ardent supporters of the NLD are trying very hard to keep their expectations in check. State institutions have a long path to go, and so many things can go, and have gone, wrong amid cycles of hope and failure to move toward democracy. The NLD has to maintain a delicate balance to keep many constituencies happy while building effective governance institutions that have been missing for decades. “Hopes are high, but so too is skepticism born of half a century of military dictatorship and the memories of earlier, lost moments of promise,” writes Trevor Wilson. Continue reading