In my last post, I reflected on how hard it can be to sense your own progress in a second language. I often feel like the more time I spend in China, the more I am aware of how much I still don’t know. But as I wrote that post and thought back to when I first arrived in Shanghai after graduation, I realized that I definitely have improved. There are still millions of words and phrases and contexts that I don’t understand, but they number ever so slightly less than when I started. That counts for something, right?

As proof, I’ve gathered a few of the new words I’ve learned and come to love while living in China. Most of them are from the last few months in Lijiang, where I’ve been speaking much more Chinese than I ever did in Nanjing.

1. 重口味Zhòng kŏuwèi

This literally means “strong flavor,” and it is used to refer to anything off-color, suggestive, or otherwise disturbing to those with sensitive ears. When the guys at the bar were joking about getting addicted to male enhancement drugs, one of the female servers (she wears a pink terrycloth sweatsuit almost every day) pursed her lips and muttered 太重口味了—too strong. Zhòng kŏuwèi can also be used more literally, like when our pre-paid office lunch in a local restaurant once included whole, steamed pig brains. That lunch was definitely zhòng kŏuwèi.

2. 好吧oba

I should have known this one before, but I didn’t. Way back in Chinese 101, I remember learning a few different ways to say “okay.” All consisted of the word 好 o, plus one of those ubiquitous Chinese “particles” like 的 de or 吧 ba. Alas, I somehow missed the fact that these particles can drastically change the meaning, and I developed the unfortunate habit of using them interchangeably. One day, my coworker pointed out my error. She had asked me if I wanted to go to lunch, and I had replied 好吧oba —okay. Turns out, I should have said 好的ode instead. Whoops.

In English, the word “okay” can have many uses depending on context and tone of voice. If your friend invites you to a music festival at Lashi Lake, you can enthusiastically reply “okay!” This is like the Chinese hăode. But if you arrive at the festival only to find that there’s no music, no food, and it’s pouring rain (true story), you can only accept the situation and say, “well…okay then.” This is hăoba. Since finally learning the distinction, hăoba has become one of my favorite things to say. This brand new beautiful house only has a squat toilet? Hăoba. People are willing to pay 500 dollars for dried caterpillars with parasitic fungi growing out of their heads? Hăoba. The wifi is broken again? Hăoba.


3. 霸气Bàqì

I was trying to come up with a good Chinese equivalent of the word “badass,” and someone suggested 霸气bàqì. It means something like “tyrannical overbearing arrogance,” and a Google image search resulted in stuff like this:


I’d say that’s pretty badass.

4. 崩溃Bēngkuì

During my first few days with The Nature Conservancy in Lijiang, we were hosting a documentary filmmaker who was hoping to make a film about the illegal charcoal industry in Laojun Mountain. He was a huge guy—especially by Chinese standards—and his stories about run-ins with police and trekking through Tibet without a change of clothes were frequently punctuated by this awesome-sounding word, 崩溃bēngkuì. As soon as I could, I looked it up. Bēngkuì literally means “to collapse” or “fall apart,” and in casual speech it’s used to describe any situation that went drastically wrong. Like most of the words on this list, once I looked it up, I started hearing it everywhere. My friend used it to describe the aforementioned Lashi Lake music festival disaster, which she’d helped organize. My boss used it when she told the story of how she tried to drop her son off at daycare, only to find that nobody else was there and the caregiver had left the country and forgotten to email her.

5. 神经病Shénjīngbìng

This means “psychosis” or “neurosis,” and it’s used to describe anyone who’s crazy. You can use it literally, angrily, jokingly, or anywhere in between. If you’re feeling particularly saucy, you can add “你今天忘了吃药了吗,” did you forget to take your meds today? For example, the guy who sold Rock Bar a shoddy stereo system, then stole it back and fled to Kunming when Yixiu refused to pay full price—shénjīngbìng. The girl who threatened her ex with a knife, and now frequently shows up at Rock to flirt shamelessly with Russ the bartender—shénjīngbìng. Come to think of it, that bar is filled to the brim with shénjīngbìng.

6. 贱人Jiànrén

You know how in English, every dirty word used to insult a man is actually aimed at a woman? I’m talking about things like bastard, son-of-a-bitch, and cuckold. Well my friends, Chinese has the answer. 贱人Jiànrén is an insult that means something similar to “bitch” (the internet also offers “cheap person,” “despicable person,” and “slut” as alternatives), but it can be used for either a man or a woman. How awesome is that?

7. 赞Zàn

This is a trendy new word with roots in social media. Traditionally, the character 赞means to praise, applaud, or eulogize. But in the 21st century, it’s come to mean “like,” as in “liking” something on Facebook (Wechat, Weibo etc.). After one of my friends posted his engagement photos on Wechat, he admitted that he was 求赞 or “searching for likes.” The word zàn has also made its way into everyday speech as an adjective, meaning something like “cool,” “great,” or “awesome.” When a bunch of random foreigners started an impromptu drum circle in one of the busiest parts of Old Town, that was definitely pretty zàn. And yes, I joined in briefly.


8. 巧 Qiăo

Way back in high school band, there was a nice kid one grade ahead of me who played clarinet in my section. After he graduated and went to college, I never saw him or thought about him again. Fast forward about six years. I was walking through Old Town Lijiang towards Zhongyi market, and my old clarinet buddy passed me walking the other direction. I stopped. Could that really be him, the kid from Vermont?? He looked the same as he did in high school. I turned around and caught up to him, got his attention, and introduced myself. He remembered me, thank god, or that would have been awkward. It turns out he studied Chinese in college, got a job in Guangzhou, and was spending a few days in Lijiang with a friend on vacation. The three of us had a drink, reminisced, and then went our separate ways. When I told this story to my coworkers the next day, they all responded with the same word: 巧 qiăo. This means “opportune” or “luckily coincidental.” I can’t think of a better word to describe meeting a fellow CVU alum in Lijiang!


9. 无语 Wú

Back in Nanjing, my poor coworker Cathy had to spend inordinate amounts of time on the phone with our students’ parents, addressing every minute question and concern they had regarding the college applications of their Little Emperors. One mother was particularly difficult. Rich and entitled, she frequently made unreasonable demands, asked inappropriate questions, and wanted my boss to write her son’s essay for him. Whenever Cathy hung up the phone, she would shake her head and say the same thing: 无语 wú. This means “speechless.” Like 好吧oba (above), it’s the perfect word for when there’s simply nothing else to say.