Lessons in Chinese Slang: Still Single? Don't Be a “Light Bulb”

Lessons in Chinese Slang: Still Single? Don't Be a “Light Bulb”
Aug 04, 2015 By Malgorzata Modlinska , ShanghaiCityGirl.com

I don’t know if it's because of the grim weather in Shanghai lately, but all the local social media has been downright dour, spreading sinister lists like ‘Why You Will Never Find the Love of Your Life in Shanghai.” Great.

However, there are some who seem to have overcome the Shanghai curse and found their significant others. What happens to those are left over? Those in China who are unlucky in love sometimes end up as mopey “light bulbs.”

Lonely Light Bulbs

It starts like this: Your best friend, the one who hits all the clubs and parties with you, suddenly finds a new fling who fills up 90% or more of their free time. In this case, you need to find yourself a new group of single party friends, whether it be a circle of single ladies and gay friends, or a mob of diehard bachelors. Don't just hang around your lovebird friends, or you risk becoming a light bulb! (In Chinese: 电灯泡 (diàn dēng pào)).

What is a “light bulb”?! It is a Chinese slang term for what is commonly known amongst foreigners as a “third wheel.” But why “light bulb,” of all things?

A light bulb is something that produces light, of course- everything around it is bright and very visible. When a couple goes out (especially in the initial, most romantic phase of infatuation) they definitely prefer dark, intimate settings. But if a single person hangs around them, he or she is like a “light bulb” spoiling the atmosphere and making everything too bright.

Origins of the Phrase

This phrase actually comes from Cantonese expression 电灯胆, 唔通气 (diàn dēng dǎn wú bù tōng qì), which means “the light bulb is not ventilated.”

Science geeks will probably understand the phrase immediately, but for the rest of us – light bulbs must have a vacuum inside in order to work, according to laws of physics. In a working light bulb, there is no fresh air coming and going inside.

Therefore light bulbs, are naturally “not ventilated.” In Chinese, the expression 不通气, or “not ventilated,” refers to people who haven’t really honed their social skills. The kind of people that do not understand the meaning of tact.

I bet after reading about “light bulbs” here, you will never look at the source of light in your house in the same way ever again.

Luckily, summer is still in full swing, and what's a better season to go out, travel, mingle, and meet new potential boyfriends and girlfriends?! But, if you choose to be single, next time your coupled friends ask you to join them, better memorize the line “我不喜欢当电灯泡(wǒ bù xǐ huan dāng diàn dēng pào),” meaning “I don’t like to be a light bulb!” – and be properly “ventilated” around your remaining party pals!

Malgorzata Modlinska is a writer living in Shanghai. Her blog focuses on Chinese Netizen slang, healthy living in Shanghai, and where to find great deals in the city. Read more from her at ShanghaiCityGirl.

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Keywords: Chinese slang for third wheel Chinese slang light bulb


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The fat dude is a light bulb cuz hes gots his own gravity. just sayin

Aug 10, 2015 12:18 Report Abuse



As an intellectual, I refuse to be known as a bro.

Aug 08, 2015 14:39 Report Abuse



OK bro, no problemo!!

Aug 10, 2015 12:17 Report Abuse



Any foreign bro who is not lighting up the local girls with his "bulb" needs an emergency power management lesson in what is known colloquially as "game."

Aug 06, 2015 13:47 Report Abuse



Really? You must be really cool because you sound it.

Aug 07, 2015 13:51 Report Abuse



Yo Tim we gotta game some girls after your lessons at Disney English.

Aug 10, 2015 21:16 Report Abuse



I'll have you know I have a black belt in coolness on the internet. Also, you suggesting the girls should be made to dress up like Minnie Mouse? Hmm... go on! I'm taking notes!

Aug 11, 2015 02:12 Report Abuse



It's hard to find an intimate setting in China when you are a foreigner dating a local. Anywhere you go the people will stare for extensive lengths of time. It's almost like you can't sit on a park bench with your other half without some creepy overly intrusive onlooker inviting himself in a not so subtle manner.

Aug 06, 2015 01:35 Report Abuse



go out, travel, mingle, and buy new potential boyfriends and girlfriends

Aug 05, 2015 16:17 Report Abuse



I guess China is the lightbulb in the developed world then...Looking into windows..Watching movies...Stealing attention...Trying to cause trouble in relations.

Aug 05, 2015 07:20 Report Abuse



why then do so many Chinese people seem to want to bring their single friends on a date with them? Security? The number of times i would hear some of my colleagues complain when their date insisted on bringing her friend along, even after months of 'dating'. It is like they are so insecure and immature (guys included), that they can not cope with being alone with someone of the opposite sex.

Aug 04, 2015 15:51 Report Abuse