Thursday, January 27, 2011

Changing the Subject With Chinese Words: A Simple Guide

Have you ever been conversing with a friend (or insurance salesman) when you find yourself in the middle of an uncomfortable discussion about money, politics, or religion? Yikes.  There's nothing worse than not finding the right words to say - especially when those words could get you out of answering a question like, "So, who did you vote for in the last election?"  (uncomfortable pause...) So anyways,  here are a few generally uncontroversial topics of conversation to consider when you need a quick subject change:

1.  Puppies and Kittens

Who doesn't ooh and ah when they see a sweet little puppy (xiǎogǒu 小狗) or kitten (xiǎomāo 小猫)?  Even a hardened criminal would find them irresistible (though hopefully not in the culinary sense...).  Rumor has it that Napoleon's entire army once stopped dead in their tracks when they were overcome with emotion at the sight of a three week old pug.  That is, of course, a rumor that I started.

2.  Taxes

No one likes taxes (shuì 税) and if you meet someone who does, he's probably off his rocker.  Smile, back away slowly, and avoid direct eye contact. 

3.  Things That Are Smelly

This topic in particular is an excellent transition from politics.  Try something like this, "You want to know which candidate I voted for?  Speaking of things that stink, did you smell (wén 闻) that breeze coming off the bay yesterday?" 

4.  Firefighters 

I can only assume that there are few people in the world who don't appreciate a good firefighter (xiāofáng duìyuán  消防 队员).  Who doesn't like the guy (or girl) who comes to the rescue when your crazy neighbor is trying to burn his house down for the insurance money and the flames are getting increasingly closer to your own pile of tinder?

5.  Aging

When it comes to aging (lǎohuà 老化), you can be against it but a fat lot of good that'll do ya.  Express your utter disdain for what the changes of time have done to your figure (vision, hearing, mind, etc.) and you'll most certainly be met with a hearty "Amen!"

So there you have it.  A few simple suggestions that can turn your conversations away from controversy and back to where they should be - lamenting the weather.  And don't forget that these words can really come in handy during family gatherings when Uncle Carl starts lecturing you about how you're wasting your life doing whatever it is that you do.  You could, of course, fake an illness and excuse yourself, but it would likely be much easier to just tell him you're thinking of becoming a firefighter (xiāofáng duìyuán)...

1.  xiǎogǒu ("she aw go") 小狗 puppy
The villainous puppy (xiǎogǒu) escaped once again.

2.  xiǎomāo ("she aw mahw") 小猫 kitten
The kitten (xiǎomāo) was given her kitty chow and promptly returned the favor.

3.  shuì ("schway") 税 taxes, tax 
The taxes (shuì) on some new cars could buy a small farm.

4.  wén ("when") 闻 to smell (i.e. experience a scent) 
"I smell (wén) something fishy" thought Red Riding Hood as she approached Grandma's cottage.

5.  xiāofáng duìyuán  ("sh aah oo fong dway yoo en") 消防 队员 fireman 
The fireman (xiāofáng duìyuán) was forced to break down the door, but he saved the kitten.

6.  lǎohuà ("laoh hwah") 老化 aging
Aging (lǎohuà) and taxes are both unavoidable.

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For more help pronouncing Mandarin words, click here.  

Photo by Cheatsheet (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons - licensed under CC

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