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Notes from a small Chinese woman

Here is our first guest post for English for China month, written by Jamie Zhang … a small Chinese woman. Enjoy!


Like Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island, when I came to study in the UK for my MBA and DELTA, I was confused by everyday English. It was like nothing I’d learnt at school. For example:

Why did people keep call me darling?
When I wanted to buy some apples in the open market, the stallholder said, ‘How many, darling?’ My cheek turned pink. Were we about to become lovers or get married?

Why did I get kicked when I forgot to say please?
The first day I arrived at university, I asked the porter, ‘Can I have my key?’ Right after I finished the sentence, my Chinese friend kicked me and hissed in my ear, ‘You forgot to say please’. How would I survive in the UK if I forgot the magic word every time?

Why did the nurse keep saying Lovely! every time she gave me an injection?
What’s so lovely about hurting someone?

Why did I have to thank the shop assistant for giving back my own money?
When I went to the supermarket, the shop assistant gave me my change. My friend said, ‘You didn’t say thank you’. But it’s my money! Why do I need to say thank you?

Why did people keep saying cheers? Are they going to make a toast?
People kept saying cheers every time they said goodbye or thank you. I thought they were going to make a toast. So where’s my glass?

Why are ‘fish tails’ crow’s feet in English?
In China, when we talk about the wrinkles at the side of our eyes, we call them fish tails’. But in English they’re crow’s feet. I love seafood, but I don’t want fish tails anywhere near my eyes! And I certainly wouldn’t like to be clawed by crow’s feet.

How can you touch type?
My classmate asked me, ‘Can you touch type?’ Of course I can, how can you type without touching the keys? Do English people type in the air instead? We say ‘blind type’ in Chinese.

Why do we see colours differently?

Blue movie vs yellow movie
In China, if a movie is yellow, it is an X-rated movie, but they turn blue in English. So when English people get the blues, are they X-rated?

Green-eyed vs red eyes
In Chinese, when we’re jealous, we have red eyes. So why does this become green-eyed in English? In China, green is always associated with peace, harmony and the environment.

Brown sugar vs red sugar
OK, on this point, I have to agree that the English are right about the colour. Brown sugar really is brown, although we call it red.

The longer I stay in the UK, the more I find out about everyday English. Even after several visits, I still have many questions. So these are just a few notes from a small Chinese woman.

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Jamie Zhang


  • The question of which colour represents X-rated in different languages is an interesting one. In Spanish, it’s green, rather than blue or yellow, so a ‘viejo verde’ (direct translation ‘green man’) actually means ‘dirty old man’.

  • I loved the way you did it imitating the style of Bill Bryson, one of my favourite pages in this book!

    Lovely post Jamie!

  • Hi Marisa
    It was fun to write this and I like Bill Bryson’s style talking about the differences between languages.

  • An acquaintance of mine was speaking in a second language and so could be forgiven for confusing words that mean the same thing or are derived from each other in different languages. She meant to say that the women in her family had a history of (breast) cancer. Instead she told her interlocutors that the women in her family had a history of crabs.

    In French, brown sugar is most often called cassonade, but can also be called sucre roux; roux translates to russet- or ginger-coloured.

  • Oh what delightful observations! Please keep ’em coming Jamie. Look forward to reading more.

  • I’m back to China now after being delayed by the volcano ash.
    I found that I started to say ‘thank you’ a lot to my family.They don’t like it as close friends or relatives in China don’t use this as much as the British do. It’s kind of reversed culture shock.

    Jamie Zhang

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