Ever get the creeping feeling that people are talking about you in Chinese? Let’s be honest, they probably are. Whether you’re fluent, kind-of-fluent, or 100% “tīng bù dǒng” (that means “I don’t understand,” if you’re really useless!), here are a few signs and words that will help determine whether or not you’re the subject of a Chinese conversation.
The truth is, even when you're unfamiliar with a language or culture, it's usually possible to feel when other people are talking about you. There are non-verbal cues that will give you a hint about whether or not you’re the content of a conversation.
Eye movements, hand gestures, whispering and muffled laughs may all indicate that you’re being talked about. But without knowing the exact content of the discussion, there is really no reason to act on it.
Most Chinese people are just curious about foreigners and won’t be saying anything malicious. If it really bothers you, give them a quick smile and a wave. They’ll be mortifyingly embarrassed and stop talking about you right away!
Words to Listen Out For
When you do know some of the language it becomes all the more interesting. If you know the words to listen out for you’re already one step ahead.
The single most important word to listen for is ”外” (wài). This word literally means “outer” or “outside”, and is used to describe many things foreign. Such as “外语” (wàiyǔ), which means “foreign language”. “外国人” (wàiguó rén), which simply means “foreigner”. and ”外宾” (wàibīn), which means “foreign guests”.
Another word you might hear is ”老外” (lǎowài), literally translating to “old outside” which is slang for foreigner. Once upon a time, lǎowài was considered an insult, but if you hear it directed towards you in the modern day, don’t despair. It’s technically a polite term; ”老” is used to describe old friends “老朋友” (lǎo péngyǒu) and people in authority such as teachers “老师” (lǎoshī) and even your boss at work, “老板” (lǎobǎn).
You might also hear 鬼佬 (guǐlǎo) , which is a derogatory term for white people. It’s fairly casually flung about without malice, however, so don’t get too upset.
If you’re extremely unlucky, or very obnoxious, you might hear someone mutter “洋鬼子” (yángguǐzi), which means foreign devil, or western devil. That’s a real insult, in case you’re wondering, but chances are you’ll never hear it.
Niche Situations With Potential for Comedy
In addition to the abovementioned words, here are some less common phrases you might hear in niche situations.
If nature has gifted you with hairy legs, you might leave an unforgettable impression on some Chinese people should you decide to flaunt them on a hot summer day. You might hear a gasp followed by something like "看那个外国人，他的腿毛好长啊!" (kàn nàgè wàiguó rén, tā de tuǐ máo hǎo cháng a!), which roughly means, "look at that foreigner, his leg hair (literally fur) is so long!".
Ideally, you would want to turn around and say "对， 我是长毛怪!" (duì, wǒ shì cháng máo guaì!), which means "yes, I am a long-haired monster!".The most probable reaction will be hysterical laughter and extreme embarrassment about the fact that you understood them. It's a great way to break the ice though and you’ll no doubt make friends for life.
With an ever-increasing English-speaking Chinese population, many young Chinese urbanites won't be overly intrigued by your English. But should you be chatting away with a friend in another language, you might make some heads turn and hear a whispering "这几个老外是哪个国家的?" (zhè jǐ gè lǎowài shì nǎgè guójiā de?), which can be translated to "where are these foreigners from?".
Here you have the upper hand if you'd like to exaggerate your personal narrative. You can just say "我来自芬兰，在那里我是王子" (wǒ láizì fēnlán, zài nàlǐ wǒ shì wángzǐ), which is a rather direct way of saying "I come from Finland, where I am the prince". Sure, Finland might be a republic and not a monarchy, and your flip-flop adorned feet paired with that bargain-bin GAP T-shirt might not be the most regal of attire, but who cares? The most probable outcome here will be utter bewilderment. Mission accomplished.
The perhaps most useful way to take advantage of your Chinese proficiency is to woo the opposite sex. If you hear a group of ladies excitedly say "这个外国人很帅!" (zhègè wàiguó rén hěn shuài) about you, you're in luck. It means they think you're very handsome. Ladies should in turn listen out for the word 漂亮 (piàoliàng), which means “pretty”.
Men can reply to their compliment with "谢谢, 你们都很漂亮" (xièxiè, nǐmen dōu hěn piàoliàng), and watch their admirers’ faces turn red – it means "thank you, you're all very beautiful". If you want to take it further, you could add, "有微信吗?" (yǒu wēixìn ma?) to ask if they have WeChat (of course they have).
Ladies, it’s probably best you issue a modest 哪里 (nǎlǐ), literally translating to “where?”, or a simple 谢谢 (xièxiè) and go about your business unless you’re in the market for a Chinese boyfriend.
In summary – more often than not, if Chinese people are talking about you, they're probably just curious. Spiteful comments may come your way once in a while, but I dare say no more often than anywhere else in the world.
As a rule of thumb, the best response to any comment is to ignore it completely or issue a friendly/jokey reply. There’s not point getting vexed about something you don’t fully understand.
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Keywords: chinese insults foreigners Chinese insults
From Shakespeare's pithy put-downs to insinuating someone knows his own mother in a biblical sense, the art of insulting people is strange, extremely colourful and varied across cultures and dialects.
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