Monday, February 16, 2009

The "zhe ge/na ge-Chinese"

"It's... 那个那个......nice!"

Me and a workmate came up with the term "the zhe ge/na ge (literally means 这个 'this one/那个 that one') -Chinese" when we were working together in Shanghai in the beginning of 2007. At that time, our knowledge of Chinese was extremely moderate and we used to challenge each other do complete every day tasks despite our language limitations.

It was during one slow Monday afternoon when my workmate decided to head down to the AllDays (convenience store) to get us some cheer-us-up-and-make-this-afternoon-pass-faster-ice-cream that the 'zhe ge/na ge-Chinese' was born. I wanted to challenge my workmate to do something harder than picking up an ice cream from the freezer, and therefore asked him to buy me a pre-paid mobile phone card as I was out of credit.

-Eh, ehhh.... ehhhhh... he was sounding, standing halfway out the door, looking ready for ice cream but not quite ready to buy me a pre-paid mobile phone card.

-It's easy! I said, totally capable of reading his mind. ("how the h*** do I buy that sort of card when I barely know the word 'pre paid!?") Just use your imagination!

-Sure, he said, being all brave and unwilling to admit himself defeated and incapable of living the China life to its fully without any knowledge of Chinese.

Fifteen minutes later he came back with a huge grin (as well as some ice cream) on his face, dropped one ice cream, one snickers (he obviously knew me well) and one mobile pre-paid card on my desk.

-So how did you manage? I asked, offering half of my Snickers as a polite gesture (I knew he would decline. After working with me for 2 months he had learned how important it was for me to have my chocolate to myself).

-Well... I just used a bit of 'zhe ge' 'na ge,' he said, still grinning, and demonstrating his actions by holding up his mobile phone to me, pretending I was the AllDays woman. I just pointed at this and said 'zhe ge' and then pointed behind the counter where they keep the pre-paid cards and said 'na ge.'

I was impressed. But since that day I realized that there was a LOT of things you could do in Shanghai only by using the words 'zhe ge/na ge.' You could, for instance order food if the restaurant had a foreign-friendly picture-menu (simply by pointing at the colorful photo and say 'zhe ge'). You could also buy clothes (you just pointed at the clothes saying 'zhe ge,' and when the guy gave you an outrageous price you'd grab the calculator from his hand, type something more moderate, say 'na ge' and show it to him), buy mobile pre-paid cards (like my friend), buy fruits/magazines/snacks from street vendors, and so on... in fact, with a little bit of imagination, you could get on quite well in Shanghai only by using the 'zhe ge/ na ge' -Chinese.

Now, before all of you start yelling protests and tell me that I am 'completely out of my mind,' let me remind you, that this was BEFORE I knew any Chinese. And to be quite honest with you all, I still reckon that 'zhe ge' and 'na ge' is some of the best survival Chinese there is. At least you won't have to go hungry with that in your luggage.

However, once I started learning Chinese, I obviously realized that it was quite... ehum, lame, to overuse those two words. Also, because in Chinese, 'zhe ge' or 'na ge' can be used kind of like a 'fill the silence word' while you are looking for another word.. (just like the English 'like')

Still, it's survival potential is evident. And, some months ago I also learned that by using the 'zhe ge/na ge' Chinese, you can boost your status and call yourself 'Mandarin knowledgeable.' 

It happened one night when we went out for dinner: a large group of laowais and some visitors from home. One of the guys who had been living in China for some 2 years wanted to shine a little bit extra and offered to order the food. We then watched as he had a 'zhe ge/na ge' conversation with the waiter, adding some extra words such as 'pi jiu' (啤酒 beer) and 'mi fan' (米饭 rice). Our visitors from home, not understanding a single word of Chinese, were extremely impressed.

-Wow, your Chinese is really good! One of them said to the guy.
-Nah... well... yeah, obviously it helps to know the basics in order to live in China! said the "zhe ge/na ge/pi jiu/mi fan -guy." You could tell that he enjoyed the compliment.
-So how long have you been learning? asked another not-understanding-a-lick-of-Chinese-visitor.
-Well... you know... most of the Chinese I know I have picked up by listening to locals. And then I have studied a bit on my own too. You know. It's not an easy language. Takes a lot of time. And a lot of practicing.
-No... it sounds really hard! But obviously you can get on quite well with it?
-Yeah, totally. I know enough every-day Chinese to get on well.

I had to bite my tongue not to say anything and in the end I am happy I didn't. I mean, in a way, this guy was doing the same thing as I did when I first came here, relying on the little things he knew to get by. Nothing wrong with that. But seriously... Admitting that your Chinese is 'quite good' and that you've 'studying hard and picked it up by listening to locals'..... naaaaah. Dude, that takes a little bit more than that, right?!

A week later we were back at dinner. However this time, it was me, the same group of laowais, some Chinese guys and no visitors from home.

While we were talking (in English), I couldn't help but noticing how the "zhe ge/na ge/pi jiu/mi fan -guy", threw in some Chinese words every here and there. This time, he used the 'zhe ge/na ge' Chinese just like the Chinese use it, to 'fill the silence while looking for the right word', as well as some other words to demonstrate his knowledge of the language.

It was 'very mama huhu this' ('very so-so' -by the way, how can something be 'very so-so'?), and 'na ge' great food... And then, when describing the way to a bar that we were talking about, he kept saying things like 'first you go straight, then you go zuo guai, na ge na ge, you guai and then you are there' (he literally said: 'go straight... like, like... turn left, turn right...') In the end it almost became embarrassing as I could tell that the Chinese guys were having some difficulties understanding all the 'na ge' and 'zhe ge' that were thrown into the conversation without making any sense. Still, being all polite and nice, and capable of understanding how much this guy wanted to show off, one of the Chinese guys said (at the end of the dinner):

-Wow, your Chinese is quite good!

....making the e zhe ge/na ge/pi jiu/mi fan -guy shine like a sun.

I haven't had dinner with him since but sometimes I wonder if he is still 'showing off,' at the same time as I am hoping that he has added some new words to his vocabulary.

I'm just thinking to myself that I know how bad it sounds when someone Swedish (who has been living abroad) speaks to another Swede in Swedish, but throws in English words every here and there... ("Och sen åkte vi vidare till en plats som var sådär totally crazy! Jag menar, alla va bara helt faboulous and stuff. Och vi va så completely happy!"). This makes me think that being Chinese and listening to a laowai going "and then we went upstairs, 那个那个, and everybody were 这个这个 happy!" can't be that much fun. In fact, it must sound quite.... ehum, stupid? 


Ramesh said...

Oh Yes. This is great survival technique until you learn enough of the language. The only time zhe ge/na ge didn't work for me was when the water mains sprung a leak in my house at 2.00 AM in the morning, flooding the house. How the heck do you do zhe ga on the telephone to a sleepy guard ??!!

Jono said...

Another thing to note - when friends from home (who understand no chinese whatsoever) come over here to visit, they often ask me what 'na ge' means after having heard so many chinese people (plus myself) say these two words. The pronunciation sounds a bit like 'nigger' and they were curious as to why the Chinese were constantly using this racist term! I wonder if this has ever caused any misunderstandings with black people who understand no Chinese on holiday in China!?

bkbj said...

Jono – Russell Peters did a skit on this, quite funny:

Jonna, only one question, how did your friend managed to tell the AllDays woman whether he needed "电信" or “联通” pre-paid cards?! And the "zhe ge/na ge/pi jiu/mi fan-guy" must be hilarious!

Jonna Wibelius said...

Ramesh -hehe.. yeah, that sounds like a challenge! A power cut is also hard hard to explain with zhe ge and na ge...

bkbj -I don't think he did. I think he was just plain lucky she gave him the right one!! :)

Anonymous said...

True, nothing is more anyoing than the jippo guys who throw in foreign words in their own native language.

Traff said...

Ha - great article. I spent Saturday night at a wedding filled with expats from Ji'Nan, Shanghai and Beijing and they were saying similar things about zhe ga.

Loving your blog!

Allen Young said...

哈哈^_^,你的博客(blog)真是太有趣了。这个、那个真是一个万能的词汇,可以用来替换很多内容。And there is a lot of Chinese used English word in their spoken language in order to show off one's Enlish ability.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Allen -一本畅销书呀?! 你太热情了!! 从小我的最大的梦想是写一本书。我很希望有一天会发生了。

Rambler said...

I quickly learned the wonders of zhe ge and na ge. It makes getting food so much easier. I'm not completely sure since I still have a very limited grasp on Chinese, but in Xi'an people tend to use nei ge more often for the "like... like..." thing.

It was actually fairly awkward for the first week or so I was here. Until someone explained to me what it meant, it always sounded like they were saying "nigger."

Jonna Wibelius said...

Tripfriend -funny, I had exactly the same experience the first time I heard the 'na ge'... back then I didn't know a work of Chinese and 'na ge' came off quite offensive...

Anonymous said...

Ahaha! That made me laugh. Sometimes you meet new foreigners in Japan and they try to speak Japanese with you. Sometimes their Japanese is good, sometimes it's bad, but that doesn't really matter: I don't want to speak Japanese with a foreigner just to show off. It's unnatural and kinda annoying... Luckily, it only happens once in a while...

Anonymous said...

So he just uses two or three words non stop to impress his laowai friends who cant speak Chinese? Ah, ignorance is bliss, isnt it? Or, conversely, knowledge is power, even if it's a tiny bit of knowledge :)

Reading about nege and "nigger" makes me remember a story a classmate once told me when she called her husband once. You dont mind if I tell you, do you?

*of course not Adrian, go ahead. I'd love to hear it!*

*Thanks Jonna!*

When she was in the beginneres class for Cantonese, she called her hubby and told him she'd learnt "da beano", which is Cantonese for steam boat, a method of cooking a meal. When she said this, he said "What!!!"

Apparently, she'd said it incorrectly and said "da been", which is very close to "dai been", which means to go to the toilet and do a poo!

So yes, pronounciation can be very important!

Thanks again for your story. ALways been impressed how you can make such events sound so fun or interesting.

Take care,


ps: I'm still seeking therapy. Will be sending you the bill shortly.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... this is very interesting. Native Chinese speakers oftetimes use 那个 when they are looking for words, just as some English speakers do with "you know". Here in America we Chinese have to be very careful with saying 那个 when in public because it sounds just like the N word in English. A Chinese business owner was sued for being a racist because a black employee was so tired of his Chinese boss yelling "那个那个那个..." on the phone. That was a real story, but I don't know the outcome of the law suit. All our Chinese friends found this lawsuit hilarious.

Also check out Russell Peters on this Chinese expression -

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting blog topic. Certainly zhege/neige is useful when learning, but as a Chinese Canadian, it didn't work for me. People would ask if I had some speech, cognitive, mental or other personal issues. I suppose a Chinese person talking to what appears to be another Chinese person that speaks like a 2 year old would appear a little queer. I had to learn Chinese, and fast.

Anonymous said...

When I went for a holiday with my sister to Malaysia, we know nearly nothing about Malay. My sister can speak something so simple like "left/right/this/that" in Malay. I remembered one day I wanted to have a pack of cigarette. We went to the shop and my sister pointed at the cigarette and say "that one", but the clerk got the other one. So she kept going "left...left..right, that one". We all bursted out laughing when I finally got the cigarette.

J said...

As someone who survives in provincial China with very little Mandarin, this struck a chord. I teach high school students and am trying to convince them that randomly inserting zhe ge/ne ge into their English sentences does not actually make their English more comprehensible.

Anonymous said...

your blog is so enjoyable to read :)
kudos, kudos!

Jonna Wibelius said...

Adrian -always eager to hear ur stories, so stop asking for permission to share. Oh, and how's the therapy coming along?? I hope u picked a cheap DR?

Anonymous -what, someone SUED over that?? Oh my G***. Only in America, haha. I watched the youtube video... hm... quite funny although I didn't find myself RFLOL...

Anonymous said...

This never fails for me in Cantonese or Mandarin stores:

zhega,nage duoshao qian
followed by taigui le

I dont need an abacus or a calculator. Just hand signals for my price.

I just did this again recently and I thought the store was going to give me the stuff because they were so delighted.


Little Tiger said...

Oh, for some reason my post didn't show up...
I just said that this was my favourite post of yours. Thanks and keep up the good work!
You're quite the laowai expert!

Jonna Wibelius said...

Little tiger -that's strange.. I have never denied your comments... anyways, I'd never ever call myself a laowai expert... but it's fun to write about things that fellow laowais can relate to... and I bet 'zhe ge/na ge' is one of those things... :)

Btw -when r u planning to make a move to China?

Little Tiger said...

It pains me to say, that realistically it will be a year or two till I go back to China *sigh*.
After I graduate I need to get a few years experience behind me before making the move. (...or else I'll be doomed to teaching English with some weird and wonderful laowai)

ps. I realized why my post didn't show. It was because I clicked on 'preview' instead of 'publish' ;)

Anonymous said...

"你太热情了!" you used the words 热情 in the wrong context. why don't you make sure you really know what it means before you use it. you chinese wannabe.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Winnie -I love people like you, who just go on and call someone they don't know for a 'wannabe' because I made a mistake. Get a life. Part of the learning process is to make mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, was I ever guilty of the niga-jiga Chinese! haha! Great to see so many others also used the point-and-click method!