As anyone who has lived in China for more than a few months will tell you, Chinglish is most definitely a common feature of life and culture here. But while Chinglish is most commonly seen as mistakes made when translating English directly into Chinese, what about the other end of the spectrum: when people specifically choose to (or habitually) include Chinese words when speaking English?
Not sure what we mean, or what kinds of words and phrases might be used in ‘Englinese’? Read on to find out!
By now, so many articles, blogs, Instagram accounts and T-shirts have been created to cover the comedic nature of Chinglish, that it’s almost as well known as Beijing duck and the Great Wall. In fact, the mistranslation (more commonly known as the Baidu translation) of English for use in public spaces in China irked the Chinese government so much that before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the government issued an edict demanding that places change all their English signs into correct English. That effort didn’t last long, but last year they tried again, ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, this time in the form of a public competition.
Only time will tell how successful any of these efforts, or whatever is tried next, will be. And though the signs are comedic, as China continues its economic and political development and growth as a world attraction, it makes sense to ensure that it’s as easily accessible, navigable and understandable as possible, whether you’re in the supermarket or walking through the park.
Of course, Chinglish is simply the result of placing the burden of responsibility for translation entirely on the shoulders of cloud-based computer algorithms (or the comedic genius of a disgruntled sign maker…) ‘Englinese’ is another kettle of fish entirely, and one that has gotten surprisingly little media coverage, perhaps because the user base is comparatively small, compared to the ubiquity of Chinglish. But as more and more expats choose China as their long-term abode, perhaps that will be changing soon.
Using Chinese words in the English language is nothing new. As far back as interactions between Chinese and English-speaking nations go, Chinese words have been part of the common vernacular. From common phrases such as “Long time no see” being directly translated from Chinese, to the transliteration of other words into now-common English, such as using the word cha (茶) for tea, or gung-ho (工合), it’s far from being an unusual phenomena among the English speaking world.
But while many of the Chinese words we now use in everyday English were introduced into the language a long time ago, that doesn’t mean it no longer happens. It’s very common for expats living and working in China to use Chinese words instead of English, when the Chinese equivalent is more reflective of a situation, or when the Chinese is simply easier to say than the English.
Do you use Chinese in your everyday English conversations? Here are some examples of words and phrases that are quite commonly used by foreigners in China, including ones we use ourselves and others suggested by friends and colleagues.
Mafan – troublesome – 麻烦
In Chinese, the word mafan can cover all sorts of annoying and troublesome situations, from work, to health, people to food. Because of the challenges many expats in China face on a daily basis, it’s very commonly used in all conversations, not just ones about life in China.
Bob: Are you going to go home for the holidays at Spring Festival?
Bill: Nope. I thought about it, but it’s just too much mafan.
Fangbian – convenient – 方便
Between Didi, door-to-door delivery, public transportation and super-fast internet, we would say that China, and especially the large cities, offer an extremely convenient way of living. It’s therefore no surprise that expats can often be heard using the Chinese word for English just as often as the English word, due to its ability to be used in all situations where something is quick, easy, flexible and generally makes you happy as a result !
Tom: I love my new apartment! Now it’s just 15 minutes to my office!
Sahid: For sure. Living there is going to be really fangbian!
Kuaidi – Express delivery – 快递
Talking of the conveniences of daily life, where would we be without kuaidi? Whether it’s dinner, groceries or video games, the ubiquity of express delivery in China certainly makes life easier. And saying kuaidi has a certain ring to it that isn’t so easily expressed when using ‘express delivery’, which also takes longer to say!
Tina: Oh my gosh! I can’t believe Bert lost his textbook!
Joe: Why worry? I heard he’s kuaidi-ing another one. It’ll be here in 48 hours!
Chai – To knock sth down/demolition work – 拆
In life, death and taxes are constants. In Beijing, you can add demolition work to that list. Who hasn’t lost one of their favorite cafes/restaurants/bars/porches to the constant move of the Beijing bulldozers? It’s so common now, together with the pain and disbelief that such activities cause, that it’s usually much better to use the Chinese word than the English phrase, so that the extent of your grief can be fully appreciated by others.
Jose: Did you hear? They chai’d our favourite public toilet yesterday!
Cindy: Seriously? Will the chai-ing never end?!
Guanxi – Good relationships/connections with authority – 关系
Of course, if you’ve spent a lot of your time in China building good relationships with The Powers That Be – those who make the decisions that can affect every aspect of your life here in both the long and short term – you can really help smooth your experiences in a lot of ways. This fact is so true, that guanxi is in fact one of the first terms expats learn after moving to China!
Ricky: Do you think Thomas is going to get kicked out of his apartment?
Andrew: I doubt it. He has such good guanxi with his landlord, it’ll never happen.
Chabuduo – close enough – 差不多
Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing is debatable, but China does have a lot of ‘grey’ areas in terms of life and living here. But for many, that’s one of the little enjoyable quirks of living here. In that grey area, where something is neither exactly this nor exactly that, we have chabuduo, used in basically any situation where we feel something is just about good enough, in a positive way.
Marc: Do you think we’ve done enough to ensure the party is going to be a success?
Kevin: Yeah, chabuduo.
Kuaidian’r – Please be faster/make sth faster – 快点儿
As convenient as life is here, there is no denying that at times, we all want things to move faster. Traffic, restaurant service, or our significant others can all be encouraged to be just a tad faster, with varying degrees of effectiveness, through the use of kuaidian’r. It also sounds a lot better that simply saying ‘Hurry the hell up!’.
AJ: I’ve almost finished the article. We can leave soon!
Nic: Kuaidian’r honey! We’re going to be late for the meeting!
Wasai! / Tian’a! / Aiya! – Oh my god! – 哇塞！天啊！哎呀！
What good is any language without an old fashioned belly rumbling expression of shock? Chinese certainly has many of them, which are all wonderfully expressive and slip off the tongue so smoothly! Plus, none of these are offensive, so fit perfectly into any conversation.
Pierre: I thought Lion King was an excellent movie!
Maile: Aiya! It was awful!
Are your most commonly used Chinese words listed above? Have we missed your favourites? Have you carried on using Chinese words and expressions after leaving China? If you aren’t an expat in China, can you see yourself incorporating these words in the future into your daily dialogue? Let us know in the comments on Facebook or Twitter. We are always happy to hear from you!
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Cultural Keys, a registered company in Hong Kong, Beijing and the UK, was founded in 2013 by three expats who were inspired by how difficult it was to access authentic traditional culture in Beijing.
Since then, Cultural Keys has helped hundreds of people do exactly that.
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北京市, 通州区, 宋庄镇,
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