Should Foreigners Who Marry Chinese Also Learn the Language?

If you’re a foreigner with a Chinese spouse or loved one, should you learn some Chinese? Even just at a conversational level? Do we have an obligation to do so because we’re intimately connected to this country and culture?

This idea came to mind while pondering my own past, and first steps, in China many years ago, a time when I began dating a local Chinese man in Zhengzhou and couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin. He and I eventually broke up after six months, yet during our relationship, his presence in my life served as a spark to prod me into learning (along with other more practical reasons, such as being more independent). Deep down, a part of me felt that because I loved him, I should make an effort to study his language, even if that simply meant mastering the most basic conversational phrases.

Ironically, he didn’t encourage my efforts, suggesting my afternoon tutoring sessions were just a waste of time. Of course, he said this late in our relationship, which means it potentially reflected the growing rift between us, more than his genuine thoughts on the subject. Nevertheless, some people out there would agree with him – and I’ve met some or even heard about them, including those who have lived many years in China and, yes, have Chinese spouses.

Most people who argue against learning Chinese turn to two primary arguments: One, that it’s too difficult, and two, that it’s not necessary anyhow.

We all know Chinese remains notoriously difficult to learn. A few months ago, during a business trip at a conference, Chinese academics from some of the most celebrated institutions in China admitted to me in private conversations just how challenging the country’s official language is. Still, nobody says you need to emerge as the next Da Shan, have absolutely perfect tones, or reach the highest level in the HSK. Merely choosing a more reasonable “conversational” level can make the task more doable and less daunting. (That’s exactly what I did when I began learning Mandarin.)

I found an entire article devoted to why foreigners in China often don’t learn Chinese, and it adds an explanation unique those who speak English: “The main reason why more expats don’t speak much Chinese is this: we don’t need to learn it. China caters to English speakers.” This would fall under the “not necessary” arguments many put forth, including that their job doesn’t require it or the employer provides a translator.

For those of us with a Chinese spouse, our loved ones from China invariably end up helping with all sorts of errands, even if you can speak Chinese. It makes sense for a number of reasons, including the fact that they understand how to conduct business much better than we do because it’s their native country and culture. But of course, this gives the foreigner less motivation to learn – and bolsters the “not necessary” side of the argument.

Still, you could argue there’s a “need” for foreigners with a Chinese spouse. Given we already have an intimate relationship with the country, we’re going to encounter the language for the rest of our lives through family. When you can’t communicate with your spouse’s parents or grandparents or other relatives, it’s that much harder to forge a meaningful bond with them and makes holidays with Chinese family more challenging.

Besides the two usual arguments – “too hard” and “not necessary” — an additional barrier exists among cross-cultural couples. Whatever language you use while falling in love with someone becomes the language you prefer to use for communication (see The Relationship Between Language and Falling in Love). For those foreigners who start a relationship with their future spouses in English or another non-Chinese language, this serves as a psychological barrier to trying out their fledgling Chinese with their loved ones. Still, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn; you just might need to find yourself a supportive tutor or a language school or university program to fulfill your goals, instead of relying on your spouse, who might not be the best teacher anyhow. (See my post Why It’s a Really Bad Idea to Teach Your Spouse Your Language.)

So, let’s consider all of these factors together.

#1: Chinese may be difficult, but you can set a more reasonable goal (such as learning a set of useful conversational phrases) to put learning within your reach.

#2: While Chinese might not be a requirement for work or even running errands, foreigners with Chinese spouses may need to know some Chinese because they’ll encounter the language for the rest of their lives, through family.

#3: Foreigners who never spoke Chinese before with their spouses might feel challenged to learn, but they can choose to find tutors or language programs to study, instead of their spouse.

Ultimately, foreigners with Chinese spouses have a really strong excuse for learning – family. And they can overcome the barriers, if they set a reasonable goal and recognize their spouses can’t always be teachers.

So perhaps we shouldn’t ask the question, “Should foreigners with a Chinese spouse learn the language?” Instead, maybe it’s time we start talking about how to learn – and when.

What do you think? Do you agree that foreigners with a Chinese spouse should learn the language?

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley

4 Chinese Curse Words That Sound Funny in Literal Translation, But Are Actually Serious

By Loozrboy – Watch your language, CC BY-SA 2.0,

I married a Chinese man and we share a bilingual relationship in Chinese and English. So it was inevitable that one day my language learning would extend to that forbidden territory – cursing in Mandarin Chinese.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the kind of woman who belongs in a Quentin Tarantino movie, dropping F-bombs at gunshot speed. But let’s face it — there are moments that demand a well-chosen curse word. So why not know a few in Mandarin Chinese?

But when it comes to curse words, the most fascinating ones are the least expected. You know, words that don’t necessarily sound like curse words on literal translation. (In fact, they can actually pack a serious punch, so be careful about how you use them.)

Here are four fascinating curse words in Mandarin Chinese that, on literal translation, might sound funny to English speakers. Just remember — use them with care, because whoever hears you might not laugh in return. 😉

狗兔崽子, gǒutùzǎizi – this could literally translate to “dog and rabbit bastards.” I confess, I busted up with laughter when I first heard this curse word. That’s because I was imagining dogs and rabbits trying to mate with each other – how could you not laugh over that?

That said, this curse word actually packs a punch. It’s the Chinese equivalent of SOB. Now you know.

畜生不如, chùshengbùrú – “No better than wild beasts.” The first time I heard this choice curse word, it fell from the lips of an elderly relative in the family, after her husband chose to rudely light up his cigarette indoors despite her pleas.

I love that woman.

While the translation sounds tame enough, it isn’t in Mandarin Chinese. I’ve seen folks translate it as you f***ing beast or simply a-hole.

王八蛋, wángbādàn – you could rewrite this classic curse word into English as “the king of eight eggs.” “egg of a tortoise.” But if you think it’s sounds just as innocuous as the literal translation, you’d be wrong. It actually comes off more like a really strong term for “bastard” or even that bad word for anus. Careful guys.

鬼子,guǐzi – who hasn’t heard this other classic curse word that translates as “devil” or “demon” or “foreign invaders”? Besides, “gui” can also mean “ghost,” so you could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t all that strong.

Except you’d be wrong on that. It actually can be as potent as that World War II ethnic slur against the Japanese — yeah, that word — which is also one definition for the term.


Do you have examples of curse words that sound funny in literal translation, but pack a punch in reality?

3 Fun Things About Learning Your Partner’s Obscure Language or Dialect

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about deciding whether or not to learn the dialect when your family doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese.

Well, I chose to learn my husband’s local dialect, and now I can proudly say I’m proficient in many of the common conversational phrases. It’s amazing to finally connect with my husband’s family and friends in the local dialect.

But more than that, learning your partner’s obscure language or dialect can also be a LOT of fun, as I’ve discovered.

Here are 3 reasons why:

IMG_190448#1: Being able to talk privately when you travel with your partner

My husband’s entire home county has a population of only 400,000 people. Most folks there are also homebodies, preferring to stay close to family.

So when we travel outside the county, the chances of actually running into someone from there – especially if we go abroad – are practically nil.

That makes speaking my husband’s local dialect our go-to language to express anything we’d rather keep private. You know, like the fact that I find my husband’s butt very sexy… 😉

IMG_2151#2: Making the family laugh, because they never expected to hear you say THAT in their language

There’s nothing quite like watching my mother-in-law giggle when she hears me say “I’m going to wash clothes” or “I can’t eat this” in the local dialect.

Yes, plain, everyday phrases like that suddenly become hilarious whenever I speak them in front of family (even my husband). And it’s all because it’s so odd to see me – a white American woman – using the local dialect.

(I have to admit, sometimes even I have to laugh when I speak in it. Never in a million years did I imagine myself learning this language, one that had once seemed impossible and completely unintelligible to me!)

IMG_20160207_164829#3: Finally being able to follow conversations around the family dinner table

One of the reasons I used to dread visiting my husband’s family was the fact that I got really, really bored sitting around the table at dinner. After all, everyone would fall into the local dialect – the preferred language – and I couldn’t understand a single word.

Not so anymore.

Nowadays, I understand more than 60 percent of the conversations in local dialect – and whatever I don’t understand, I can usually figure out by the context. (I still can’t believe how much I’ve learned!)

Although, this can sometimes qualify as “not so fun after all” when the conversations happen to involve something intensely personal (like, say, how the family is wondering aloud when you’re finally going to have kids – which happens more than you might think!).

Ah well. Better to hear it firsthand than filtered through someone else, right?

What do you think?

Student Seeks Intercultural Couples Using Mandarin & English for Research

Susanna Wickes & Mr. Wang
Susanna Wickes and her husband, Mr. Wang

Are you part of an intercultural couple using Mandarin and English for communication? Susanna Wickes, a master’s student at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin (and the blogger behind the Inner Mongolian), wants you to participate in a simple online survey (takes 5 minutes or less to complete!) available in English and Chinese.

Here’s the story behind the project, straight from Susanna:

The idea basically came from my own relationship with my husband, and my interest in the strange, mixed-up language that we’ve made up over time as we’ve got to know each other and learned each other’s languages.

The project involves exploring in detail the ways that couples like us talk to each other in everyday life. The languages (English and Mandarin Chinese) and the intercultural dynamic are something all the couples have in common, but because each couple will have their own unique situation – where they live, their proficiency level in each other’s language, the length of their relationship, and so on – they will also have developed their own personal style of communication. And it’s this that I’m hoping to capture in the diaries and conversations that my participants create and send to me.

Being in a relationship with someone from a very different culture often means that both partners take on a new identity. Not just the identity of “wife” or “husband” but also aspects of the other person’s life and culture become your own. One of the main aims of my project is to look at how language use reflects the sense of “shared identity” that intercultural couples experience when they create a life together.

The surveys (in English and Chinese) are really simple to fill out. If you have five minutes and meet the requirements, Susanna would be enormously grateful for your help!

And if you’d like to be a more active participant in Susanna’s project — such as keeping a diary — you can leave her your contact information at the end of the survey to let her know.


Guest Post: Learn Mandarin Chinese – What to Call Chinese Family for Western Women Married to Chinese Men

A few years back, I wrote an article titled The Chinese Relatives Name Game, reflecting on the challenges of trying to remember all of the names for relatives here in China. It’s funny that I’ve been married to my husband for over 10 years and I still can’t keep them straight! (In the post, I even wondered if it might take me a lifetime to get the names right… 😉 )

Of course, with Chinese New Year coming up, it’s as if I’m facing the yearly final exam on this subject – one that I’m not entirely sure I’m going to pass. (Ah well, at least my blunders might provide a bit of comic relief during the holidays?)

That’s why I’m grateful Yiwen Yang has graciously provided this article. It’s an introduction to some of the basics every Western woman who marries a Chinese man should know when it comes to what to call your Chinese family members.

Do you have a guest post that you think ought to be featured on Speaking of China? Check out the submit a post page to learn more about writing for this blog.

What to Call Chinese Family Members for Western Women Married to Chinese MenThe other day we were reading Jocelyn’s article The Chinese Relatives Name Game again, and thought about how confusing understanding all about Chinese family members can be!

Whilst we’re sure it’s not a new topic for many foreigners who are learning Mandarin Chinese, it’s definitely still a big challenge—especially if you are new to your Chinese family, and them to you.

As Chinese New Year is once again looming, why not refresh some of your Chinese language skills in advance so that you can impress your Chinese family—or maybe give them surprise at how fluent you have become in the language.

So, today, we are going to help you out!

As many of you know, Chinese family trees can be talked about forever. To actually remember the names and titles of people in Chinese family trees takes time; indeed, it’s also challenging for many native Chinese.

As Jocelyn from Speaking of China is more focused on AMWF (Asian male/Western female) love, let’s get started by looking at terms for Western women married to Chinese men.

Here’s an easy one if you are married to a Chinese man:

Husband: 老公,丈夫,先生 (lǎogōng, zhàngfu, xiānsheng)

What will your husband call you? (wife): 老婆,妻子,夫人 (lǎopó, qīzi, fūrén)

Note: 老公 (lǎogōng)/老婆 (lǎopó) are the most popular names which you can use in basically every situation, whilst 丈夫 (zhàngfu)/妻子 (qīzi),先生 (xiānsheng)/夫人 (fūrén) are a bit more formal and used to introduce a couple to other people.

For example, 这是我的先生 (Zhè shì wǒ de xiānsheng):This is my husband


Father in-law (your husband’s father): 公公 (gōnggong)

Mother in-law (your husband’s mother): 婆婆 (pópo)

公公 (gōnggong) and 婆婆 (pópo) are the most common words in use although, in many cases, people just use the same words as their husband use, which are father(爸,bà)or mother(妈,mā).

Also, when you have a child, some people will follow the words the child speaks, namely: grandfather(爷爷,yéye),grandmother (奶奶,nǎinai) 。

So what will your in-laws call you? 媳妇 (xífù)/儿媳 (érxí):(daughter in-law)

Note: in many cases, if they are talking to you, they will just say your name naturally.

Other useful names you might use:

Your husband’s older brother: 大伯(dàbó)
Your husband’s older sister: 大姑子(dàgūzi)
Your husband’s younger brother: 小叔子(xiǎoshūzi)
Your husband’s younger sister: 小姑子(xiǎogūzi)

Sounds complicated already?

Well, here are some great tips for you to follow:

  1. For the older generation/seniors, if you forget the correct way to speak to them, just to follow your husband is fine. (Eg. it’s okay to call your parents in-law just “father” or “mother”.)
  2. For the younger generation/seniors, you can either follow your husband or just say their name directly. (Eg. Your husband’s younger sister. If her name is 筱钧(xiǎojūn),you can just say her name directly.)

You may not need to use all of the above every day but, don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to the best/correct ways of addressing family members.

Actually, on our site Learn Mandarin Now, we recently published two Podcasts about Chinese family members:

  • direct family members:
  • extended family members:

We are now publishing our exciting Podcasts every day from Monday-Friday, covering a variety of interesting topics to help you learn Mandarin Chinese more effectively. They are totally free for everyone to view and listen to but, if you can kindly leave your honest opinion and ratings in i-Tunes or just simply tell us what kind of topics you like us to talk about in the near future, we’d greatly appreciate this. In any event, we’d love hear from you.

Wish everyone a great Chinese New Year ahead!

Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

The 18 Funniest Chinese Phrases (and How to Use Them), Pub’d on Matador

The 18 Funniest Chinese Expressions (and How to Use Them)

Last week, Matador Network just published my article titled “The 18 Funniest Chinese Phrases (and How to Use Them)“. Here’s a snippet of the article:

1. Chinese people aren’t just in a class all their own. They’re “a crane among a flock of chickens.” (鹤立鸡群, hèlìjīqún)

2. In Chinese, you’re not better late than never. You “mend the flock after the sheep have been lost.” (亡羊补牢, wángyángbǔláo)

3. A Chinese person won’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. But he might “drain the pond to catch all the fish.” (竭泽而渔, jiézé’éryú)

To read all 18 of those phrases, see the full article at Matador Network. And if you love it, share it!

Guest Post: Learn Mandarin Chinese Like Lovers Do

I’ll admit it — I’m a huge fan of “the karaoke method” for learning Chinese. It’s why I wrote a few years back about 8 Bands to Help You Learn Mandarin Chinese for Matador. And it’s also why I’m happy to share this post from Yang of Learn Mandarin Now

Do you have a guest post you’d like to see published here? Visit the submit a post page to learn more about guest post guidelines and how to submit


Learn Mandarin Now Guest Post Picture

Listening to Chinese love songs is a really great way to learn Chinese, and was highly rated in a recent survey we undertook, details of which are consolidated in our blog post: How to Learn Chinese: 50+ bloggers give their tips.

We believe Jocelyn agrees with this, as recall reading one of her own previous blogs on the subject some time ago; so, before we go further, many thanks to her for letting us from Learn Mandarin Now make another guest post here, but this time all about one of our favourite topics: Chinese Love Songs!

Whilst, naturally, everyone has their own tastes in music, listening to Chinese love songs is, perhaps, one of the very best ways to learn Chinese, as it will be sure to get the attention of your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife or husband—and probably find you a “special” tutor into the bargain!

Some of the songs below, both from the past and more modern times, can be considered “classics” and are extremely popular amongst many Chinese people—in some cases being an integral part of Chinese music culture.

Here are four we especially like:

1. The Moon Represents My Heart – 月亮代表我的心

This song is really one of the classic Chinese love songs and almost all Chinese, no matter old or young, will know the lyrics and are happy to sing along with it.

The song was actually written in the early 1970s but it was not until the late 1970s that it came to prominence and fame when Teresa Teng’s(邓丽君) version, which has been described as: love song with a waltz-like lilt”, made the song known throughout Asia.

The essence of the song expressing the feelings that words cannot adequately convey the speaker’s love, whereas the moon, a symbol of romance the world over, can.

2. The Goodbye Kiss – 吻別

First released in 1993 by the famous Jacky Cheung’s (张学友), this song became one of the most popular Chinese love songs in the 1990s. Jacky Cheung, with records sales of over 25 million and internationally famous, is known as one of the “Four Heavenly Kings”(四大天王) of Hong Kong.

In addition to the song, the music video was also very popular in China and, if you ever went to KTV in the country during the 1990s, you would have almost certainly heard people asking for and singing along with this song.

3. Red Bean – 红豆

Written by the famous Hong Kong lyricist Lin Xi(林夕), Red Bean is one of the most famous and successful of Faye Wong’s(王菲) love songs, released in 1998 at the height of her success.

Faye Wong is considered to be one of the “divas” of Chinese music, as well as the queen of “Canto-pop”—and one of the highest paid singers in the region. These days, Faye Wong rarely appears on TV or in movies or releases any new albums, yet when she does do a concert it’s usually sold out in just minutes, no matter how high the ticket prices.

4. Marry Me Today-今天你要嫁给我

Marry Me Today, sung in a duet by famous Taiwanese artists David Tao(陶喆) and Jolin Tsai(蔡依林) is, not surprisingly in view of its title, one of the most popular songs heard at Chinese weddings.

Released in 2006 on David Tao’s fifth studio album “Beautiful”, this song became an almost instant hit for the singer, for whom it subsequently won the “best song” at the prestigious GMA Awards. It can usually be heard at any typical KTV session where couples love to sing it together/to each other.

There are so many Chinese love songs to choose from that we had a hard time selecting only four. In fact, if you have some special love song which has helped you learn Mandarin Chinese, be sure to let us know by visiting our website:

Yang is a serial web entrepreneur whose latest website is He is passionate about learning new languages and cultures. 


Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

Guest Post: Learn Chinese with phrases of love and affection

A while back I started a Friday column of my own titled Mandarin Love, covering how to express your love in Chinese with some special Chinese idioms. (My Mandarin Love post on Chinese phrases on love and destiny is one of the 10 most popular posts on this site.)

So I was thrilled to receive this guest post from Yang of Learn Mandarin Now, who offered to revive my Mandarin Love series with an entry of his own. 

Do you have a few good Chinese phrases or a great story to share on Speaking of China? Check out the submit a post page to learn how you can have your guest post published here.


Learn Mandarin Now_1Firstly, sincere thanks to Jocelyn for inviting us from Learn Mandarin Now to write a guest blog post.

Following on with Jocelyn’s own theme of phrases and of love and affection in Mandarin Chinese, we’d like to highlight several more very well known Chinese phrases dealing with matters of the heart and highlighting the yearning and passion lovers can have for each other…

One of our favourites is:

Jin Yu Liang Yuan (金玉良缘, jīnyù liángyuán) which literally means: a perfect couple, with a shining, ideal future.

This phrase often appears with reference to Chinese weddings and refers to   the prospects for a good marriage. It is originally from the Dream of the Red Chamber(红楼梦), one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels. This novel was written sometime in the middle of the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty and is considered to be a masterpiece of Chinese literature.

With its inferences for a good future and a successful marriage, Jin Yu Liang Yuan is also a popular name for many TV shows and dramas in China.

Then there is Fei Cheng Wu Rao (非诚勿扰, fēichéngwùrǎo) which literally means: “If you are not sincere, don’t bother me.”

There are two main reasons this phrase is so popular in China, and both relate to the cinema and TV.

The first reason relates to the name for the popular love story/romantic comedy movie, from 2008: ”If You Are The One” which starred two famous Chinese movie stars, Shu Qi(舒淇) and Ge You(葛优), and was also directed by one of China’s best known directors, Feng Xaiogang(冯小刚).

The other reason is that Fei Cheng Wu Rao is also the name of a TV show produced by the Jiang Su television station and is the Chinese version of the well known dating TV show “Take Me Out”. This Chinese version is hosted by famous TV host Meng Fei(孟非) although, in fact, in recent years, more and more single foreigners, including overseas Chinese, have also joined the show, and some of them have even found the right partner.

Learn Mandarin Now_2

Another very popular expression (shown below) literally means “Once, true love was placed before me, but I didn’t cherish it. After I lost it, I regretted it. This was the most painful thing in the world and if heaven could give me another chance, I would say to that girl three words, “I love you.” If I had to place a time limit on this love, I hope it would be 10,000 years.”


This expression originated from a Stephen Chow (one of Hong Kong’s most famous film stars who combines kung-fu style action with comedy) movie and most Chinese growing up at the time this movie was released know this line well. Although not so popular at first in Hong Kong, the movie finally became well known in Mainland China and became recognised as one of the best movies made by Stephen Chow—especially for these classic lines.

Of course, there are many other Chinese phrases which convey the feelings of cherished love and you can find some more of them with a little research or, if you simply wish to brush up on your Mandarin, take a look at our site Learn Mandarin Now

Yang is a serial web entrepreneur whose latest website is He is passionate about learning new languages and cultures. Yang is currently working on researching the preferred ways 50 international bloggers learn Chinese, and will share the results in his blog shortly.


Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

To learn dialect or not? When your Chinese family doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese

My Chinese Grandma is a lovely woman…who doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese at all.

“Learn some Mandarin Chinese” is a suggestion I offer any foreigner dating someone Chinese, especially if they want to make a great first impression with the family. Even just knowing a handful of phrases makes a difference.

But what happens if you’re like me, someone now fluent in Mandarin Chinese after years of study…with a Chinese family whose local dialect is a completely different language.

My husband John hails from Western Zhejiang Province and his local language is one of China’s Wu Dialects (a family of languages that includes the dialects of Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Ningbo and Wenzhou). There are literally thousands of dialects within this family. Even here in the Hangzhou region, which includes the county where my husband was born and raised, his local dialect differs from the county seat’s local dialect which also differs from the Hangzhou dialect. When John and I visited a friend in Yiwu, a city in Central Zhejiang Province, the local dialect there was completely different as well — and tough for both of us to understand. Still, nothing can beat Wenzhou dialect, considered one of China’s most difficult local languages to comprehend (supposedly, it was used for communications in China during World War II to ensure no enemies — especially Japan — could intercept wartime messages).

How is John’s local language different from Mandarin Chinese? Here are few examples:

– Mandarin Chinese: Waipo
– John’s local dialect: Abu

– Mandarin Chinese: xiao haizi
– John’s local dialect: xia ninguo

Play/have a good time
– Mandarin Chinese: wan
– John’s local dialect: xi

– Mandarin Chinese: xie
– John’s local dialect: a

– Mandarin Chinese: ziji
– John’s local dialect: xiguo

– Mandarin Chinese: xiaoshi
– John’s local dialect: zhongtou

You get the idea…it’s an entirely different language!

But unlike Cantonese or Shanghainese, which are local languages in some of China’s biggest business/financial centers (Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai), my husband’s local dialect is only spoken in John’s hometown, a mountainous rural backwater. You won’t see foreign language students flocking to study John’s dialect, nor will doing so boost my resume.

So why bother learning at all?

That was my initial feeling when I first spent time at my husband’s home in the village. I had invested so much of my language study on Mandarin Chinese…and besides, we never stayed at his hometown for more than a few days or a week, providing me few opportunities to learn or practice.

But over the years, I started to find myself hitting a wall — and that wall was named Grandma (Waipo to you Mandarin speakers, Abu out here). See, Grandma doesn’t speak a word of Mandarin Chinese. And to make matters worse, she was born in the Wenzhou area…so her local dialect is clouded with a Wenzhou accent, making it even more of a challenge to understand her. During the summer of 2011, when John left me here at the family home, I passed many uncomfortable moments at Grandma’s house, trying to decipher what she was trying to say — missing out on opportunities to get to know her as person.

That’s the thing: this is the language of people I care about.

Yet it’s more than that, as this author reminded me in an article praising the importance of local dialects in China:

I don’t know where the tipping point was when dialects turned from a communication obstacle to a cherished heritage for Chinese culture. But when I stumbled upon children in my hometown talking to each other in Mandarin while playing on the street, it dawned on me that the days for most dialects are doomed. They would disappear within one generation or two. Possibly within my lifetime, most dialects would go down the road of calligraphy, or worse the abacus, where they would be under academic scrutiny and government protection, but out of the daily use of the common folk.

By learning John’s local dialect, even if it isn’t obviously “useful” or “practical”, I could actually help preserve part of China’s cultural heritage.

Of course, that’s if I ever actually master the language. For now, it’s just a phrase here, a phrase there, and a smattering of words.

But you should have seen the way John’s Grandma beamed at me when I opened her door and finally called her “Abu!” It warmed my soul to know that we were finally communicating for the first time in years. And though I have a long way to go (John still does most of the talking with her) I know in my heart I made the right decision to learn.

Have you ever considered learning an uncommon Chinese dialect? Why or why not?

Update: scratched out the entries under “Hour” above, thanks to the commenters who noted that Mandarin Chinese speakers may use both. Good catch!

Is it better to say 4,000 yì or 400 billion?

(photo by Thanasis Papathanasiou via

The other night, when the evening sunset made the horizon blush, I thought about the vastness of the universe. “Just imagine,” I said to John, “Our sun is one of 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.”

“Four hundred billion…that’s sìqiān yì.”

“Four thousand yì equals 400 billion?” I asked.

“One billion is shí yì.”

Of course one billion was 10 yì! I wanted to slap my forehead in what was arguably a huge “doh!” moment. Hadn’t I learned Chinese so many years ago — including numbers and their equivalents? But yet it took me a few extra seconds to remember the difference between billion and yì.

I shook my head. “It always seems like I can’t keep the numbers straight. I had the same problem when I went to Spain and was speaking Spanish. But maybe it’s even harder in Chinese. You have yì, we have billion and they don’t equal each other. And of course I like billion — because that’s what I grew up with.”

“I like yì,” said John.

It’s funny that we can stare at the same setting sun, imagining the exact same number of potential stars, and express it in a completely different way — all because of cultural and linguistic preferences.

Is it better to say 4,000 yì or 400 billion? Who knows? But whatever your choice of number, there’s nothing like gazing at the night sky — or a sunset — and wondering about all of the unanswerable “whys” in the universe.