“What’s a canisher?” I almost asked. But thankfully my brain, despite the glass of wine, managed to pip my mouth to the post and stopped it from making the grave social faux-pas of not understanding someone’s joke.
But then my brain couldn’t immediately process it either, and tied itself in a knot. I winced from the pain. It was a sensation that I’d come across before when I’d been, as an English speaker, watching a Danish TV drama, or as a Japanese speaker, eavesdropping on some Korean tourists – moments when I think I understand what they’re saying then realise I don’t, or vice versa.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a joke. It was only wordplay, and not one that would have impressed Shakespeare. And yet, when I finally understood what this British guy sat next to me at lunch had just said, I found it funny, and I knew it was inevitable that I’d soon be saying it myself. Once I’ve been in China for a while as this guy had, I too will be using a Chinese phrase in an English sentence because it was fun and because it conveyed a careless ease with the language, and because it would confuse those newbies who weren’t yet rocking the confidence of a long-term expat.
‘Kanyixia’ – pronounced canisher when you anglicise it a bit, which you must under these circumstances – means ‘have a look’. So, “I’ll have a kanyixia,” which is what the guy had just said, strictly means “I’ll have a have a look.” But we know this. That’s why it’s funny.
Another one I often hear is ‘chabuduo’ – pronounced charbuduor, meaning ‘about the same’ or ‘more or less’. “Are you feeling better today?” “Chabuduo.” “How’s that project coming along?” “Chabuduo”. “Is that chicken any good?” “Chabuduo.” Very rhythmical, and great for when you can’t be bothered to have a proper conversation.
Here are some others that I’d like to use, if they aren’t being used already.
‘Qingjin’ (chin-gin) = ‘Come in’. “Qingjin qingjin qingjin!” sounds awesome.
‘Zenmeyang’ (zunmeyan) = ‘How are you?’ ‘What’s that like?’ ‘How’s that going?’ ‘What do you think?’ Hides all manner of linguistic sins.
‘Zhendema’ (zhundema) = ‘Really?!’ Has more syllables that you can use to get the tone of your surprise just right.
‘Hao’ ‘Haoma’ ‘Haode’ ‘Haoba’ = ‘Hao’ means ‘good’, while the endings convey a different tone and emphasis. ‘Haoma’ is asking whether the other person also thinks it’s a good idea. ‘Haode’ means you’re willing to go along with something. ‘Haoba’ is a question that’s not a question, like, “That’s alright, isn’t it.”
Because Chinese is composed logically using the meanings of each syllable as building blocks, many everyday terms are more succinct than the equivalent in English, where more often than not ten words will do when three will suffice. In fact, the directness of Chinese can pose an interesting problem for a polite, tentative Englishman like DD, who already apologises much too often than local culture expects (“Duibuqi, duibuqi, duibuqi…”).
He and I already use Japanese words in English conversation, in fact him more than me, and admittedly more when we’re trying to be cute. As we go from post to post and more foreign words seep into our consciousness, I wonder if one day we’ll find we can’t string a sentence in any one language any more. In which case, I fear, we’ll be losing not making friends for making them wince over lunch.
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