Monday, 22 July 2013

Faux pas in Chinese (Taiwan)

My beloved ex-supervisor, Dr. Paul Mulligan Thompson* (deceased), was in Taiwan in 1952, three years after the Nationalists’ retreat from mainland China to Taiwan.  The Americans, Taiwan’s ally at the time, had donated, among other things, powdered milk in tins with labels stating clearly: “A gift of the American people.  Not to be re-sold”, which was, of course, totally flouted. 

An American chap, who was in Taiwan at the same time as Paul Thompson and could speak some Chinese, went off one day to buy one of these tins of powdered milk.  His Taiwanese contacts had all told him not to forget to add the 牛 niú / “cow” bit when referring to drinking milk, because in Chinese, 奶 nǎi / “milk” used on its own tends to mean “breast milk” as 奶 nǎi is also used to refer to the breasts of a woman (e.g., 奶罩 nǎizhào / "breast mask" = brassiere).  So, for dairy milk, one has to say 牛奶 niú nǎi / “cow milk”.  Powdered milk is 奶粉 nǎi fěn / “milk powder”, with 粉 fěn / “powder” being in the third tone. 

When he got to the shop, he remembered the 牛 niú / “cow” bit and forgot the 奶 nǎi / “milk” bit.  Then, he mis-pronounced the third tone of “powder” as a fourth tone, one of the characters for which is 粪 fèn / “excrement”.  

So he ended up asking the shopkeeper for a tin of 牛粪 niú fèn / “cow dung”!

This same unfortunate gentleman went to a banquet where a young lady was assigned to look after the honourable guest.  In those days (1952), not that many people in Taiwan could speak English, and since the American could speak some Chinese, their conversation was conducted in Chinese.

The young lady offered him some tea, to which he said no.  She then offered him some beer, to which he said no as well.  She came up with more offers, to all of which he said no.  She then asked what he would like.  

Of all the times to get the verb wrong, this poor chap had to choose that moment to do it and on “milk” of all the nouns to boot.  He used 吃 chī / “to eat” instead of 喝 hē / “to drink”.  The one liquid one can indeed 吃 chī / “to eat” in Mandarin Chinese is milk, but only in a special usage: 吃奶 / “eat milk” = (said of a baby) to suck the breast.  

Second mistake: of all occasions, he had to go and add “your” on this one.  The man presumably only wanted to try the Taiwanese kind of milk, Americans being regular milk drinkers, so he added “your” to make it clear he wanted to try their kind of milk.

Third mistake: he used the singular “your” (你的 nǐ de) in Chinese, instead of the plural “your” (你们的 nǐmen de) (for referring to Taiwan).

So what he ended up saying to the young lady, when she asked him what he would like after all, was:  “我要吃你的奶。 wǒ yào chī nǐ de nǎi / “I want to eat your[singular] milk”)”

The young lady went bright red, rushed off, and never came back.  Lucky for the American he didn’t get a slap in the face.

(Taiwan 1952)