Sunday, January 18, 2009

Adventures In Language Learning: Don't Bu Liao Me!

Let me start by saying, in my defense, that bu in Chinese usually means "no" or "not."

So I've been on a bit of a weight-loss kick these days. Walking somewhere between two and seven miles a day can dramatically change your endurance as well as your weight...but that's the stuff of another blog. For now, let me focus on the task on hand. That is, to explain one of the finer nuances of trying to communicate and understand language on someone else's turf.

It has been my goal that at the halfway point of my weight loss I would buy myself something I have had my eye on for months. Near the Xizhimen subway station is a large wholesale market that has a shop specializing in what I'd call "Tibetan-style" clothing. Mostly jackets and baggy cotton pants. Julie had purchased one there a few weeks ago, and it is both stylish and comfortable.

So I'm thinking that it's my turn. I know that most of Chinese fashion is designed with the petite Chinese figure in mind, but the cut of Julie's jacket is such that even I can wear it. In fact, I tried it on before I left the apartment. Keeping in mind that I'd have to get one in the same style, I headed on the infamous 438 bus (all was quiet for a change) bound for Xizhimen.

When I arrived at the 4th floor and stepped into the shop, it was the same-old, same-old. The store attendant, a woman in her late-twenties or early-thirties, was on me like a hawk. I refused to quicken my pace of looking through each and every jacket. In the past, I had always felt intimidated by the overwhelming attention I have been given in shops but this time I was on a mission.

Jacket after jacket, all beautiful, but not what I was looking for. Finally I went into my Putonghua bag of tricks and pulled out a few phrases (with accompanying hand motions, of course!) to explain that my daughter had bought a jacket here and I was looking for one like it. I mimed to her the cut of the front and she pointed me to another rack that had a different style. I also asked her about sizes and from what I could understand, they only carry smaller sizes.

I head to the other rack and start looking, the woman still at my heels. I find one that looks close. Excitedly I take off my coat and say to her, Chuan chuan, keyi ma? Hoping that I just asked her if I could try it on, I await her response. Bu liao, she says. Feeling that she has just told me "no" and translating it in my mind as "no, lady, you're too big for these clothes so don't even think about trying it on," I put my coat back on and leave the store, quite dejected.

As I headed out of the market, I text-messaged Steve about where I was and told him that I was never going back to that place. Fair to say, I was less than happy. I also mentioned that the woman had "bu liao'd" me. How embarrassing, I thought.

So what's the lesson? (Or should I say, "the punch line?")

I head home and sit at the desk to work on my Chinese homework. There's a great web site that we can use to look up words, so I was on the site for help with my translations. I thought to myself, "I've been bu liao' least let me see what it actually means in Chinese..."

It means "cotton."

Enough "said."


PS: Yes, I'm heading back there next week.


At 8:12 PM, Blogger said...

I just stumbled onto your website. This is a great story!


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