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Say Wha...?


     I've been trying to learn Chinese since 1967. It's still very much an ongoing process.
     The other day I was walking by a store that sells window coverings.  Just inside the door I noticed a very nice living room set – a sofa, two chairs and a coffee table. (Well, I guess it was probably a tea table). I went inside and two sales clerks came over to help me. I told them I just wanted to look at the furniture. One of the girls said, "Sorry, we only sell curtains here."
     "What about these chairs?" I asked, pointing at the sofa set.
     I heard her answer "Oh, we made those ourselves."
     "Really!" I exclaimed. "They're beautifully made!"
     The two clerks looked at each other, completely mystified, and I realized that I should have thought about it for more than one millisecond before opening my mouth. If I had, I might have figured out that what she actually said wasn't "We made them ourselves" (自己做的). She'd said "They're for us to sit in" (自己坐的). Same pronunciation, but obviously more appropriate from the context.
     Not only that, but from the context, what she probably heard me reply wasn't "They're beautifully made" (做得很漂亮), but "You sit beautifully" (坐得很漂亮)! No wonder they looked mystified.
     "Uh, I mean, they look really comfortable," I stammered.  Smiles and nervous tittering all around.

* * *

     That same day I passed by a row of street vendors selling gloves. I wanted a pair of the kind that have the finger-tips cut off, but since I don't know what they're called even in English, let alone Chinese, I had to try to describe them to the first vendor. "Oh, you mean the expose-fingers gloves" (露手指的), he said. He didn't have any, but armed with my new vocabulary, I was able to go on down the row asking the other vendors. Several of them had what looked like children's sizes, but none I thought would fit me.
     Finally the last vendor said she had just sold her last pair. I should come back that afternoon and she'd have more. "Big enough for me?" I asked, holding out my paw. "Well, they're stretchable," she said. "Just come back this afternoon." My Chinese may leave something to be desired, but I speak enough Vendor to know what she meant – "Come back later and I'll try to sell you something you don't want." I didn't go back.
     A couple of days later I was in a store where the clerk absolutely insisted that I try on the gloves I thought were for children. The street vendor had been right after all. They stretched and fit me quite comfortably. Maybe I don't speak Vendor as well as I thought.

* * *

     In restaurants here, when you want service, the custom is to bellow for a waitress at the top of your lungs. The question for me is, what exactly should I bellow? Most people use "server" (服务员), but I've never liked the term. While it has the advantage of being non-sexist, it strikes me as a bit too much like a rich capitalist pig talking down to the working people.
     Some of the locals use "young sister" (小妹). I once said that to a waitress in her forties and was rewarded with one of the biggest smiles I've ever seen. Actually, it turned out she wasn't a waitress – she was a busboy... er, busgirl... er bus-lady, whatever.
     The last couple of years I've also heard "beautiful woman" (美女). I tried that at dinner last night and the people at the next table burst out laughing. I turned to Laopo for help but she was laughing, too. She started to explain, "Young people call each other that...."
     I almost said, "But I've heard you say it." Fortunately, I caught myself just in time, proving that I do occasionally think before I open my mouth.
     "... or a woman can say it to a girl," Laopo continued. Oh. So now I'm an FFDOM (Fat Foreign Dirty Old Man).

UPDATE: In the eighteen months since I wrote this post, I've heard middle-aged men use the term "beautiful woman" to address waitresses and clerks on several occasions. It appears to be becoming acceptable, at least by the locals here in Liuzhou.


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