Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cussing Like a Sailor

Sometimes, speakers of multiple languages find that some expressions are simply more powerful when uttered in a tongue different than the one currently in use. I find quite often that a healthy ‘Zut Alors’ (darn it, in French) hits the spot better than the wimpy sounding ‘darn it’. The German ‘Ich verstehe’ (pronounced ‘ish fair-shtay-uh) is more curt, and therefore more significant when said after being turned down for something I really want. Rather than say ‘I understand’, which comes across as palliative I’ll spit out a sharp ‘ich verstehe’. Considering my irritation scratched, I can go on with conversation rather than trying to convey my true feeling with its placatory English counterpart. 

As my Chinese vocabulary grows I find that more and more words in Chinese have the same effect. A wondering ‘Zhende ma’ (pronounced gen-duh mah) takes the place of ‘Oh, really?’. ‘Duo me ke bei’ (dwo muh kuh bay) rings so much closer to my true feeling than ‘what a pity’. ‘Ke bu shi’ (kuh boo shuh) works so much better than ‘You said it, Sister – or Brother!’ That Chinese phrase has the added advantage of being shorter, adding to its effectiveness.

I’ve recently incorporated a Chinese variation on the German ‘ich verstehe’ into my vocabulary. That phrase translates to ‘ming bai’ (ming buy), meaning ‘I understand the situation’. Said with proper tone, those two syllables convey more displeasure than even its German cousin.   

Is it any surprise then, that I incorporated ‘Ah-ya!’ into my vocabulary? In times when I get aggravated or flustered on a small scale a frustrated ‘A-ya!’, drawing out the ‘ya’ part comes flying out of my mouth. It feels right and it fits.

In the infamous words of my friend Ron, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’ve been using this expression for about 2 years now, almost as long as I’ve lived here. When I say it in class or around any of my friends who are Chinese, they snicker and nudge each other, usually repeating the term in order to prolong the merriment. I thought they were doing it because they thought it was endearing of me to bark out such a typically Chinese utterance. Until I said it in my Little’Uns class.

They too laughed and nudged each other. I thought: “Wow! Even small children think I am cute!”

One of the parents approached me after class. She wasn’t angry exactly, more… shocked perhaps? Dismayed? Not really sure what was going on with her but she did get her message across clearly: I was not to use that phrase in front of the children anymore.

Come to find out, what I thought was a mild expression of frustration is actually a not so placid term incorporating fecal matter.


NOW I get why people have been laughing at me for the past 2 years. I’ve been cussing like a sailor and had no idea I was doing so.

In my defense I did not know that ‘A-ya!’ was in any way vulgar or crude. According to the textbook I’m studying it is indeed just a mild curse, something along the lines of ‘Dang it all to heck!’ also in my defense: I do not know any Chinese Marines or Navy personnel and thus could not possibly divine that that innocuous phrase is actually listed first in their lexicon of Sailor Curse Words and Phrases*.

Someone could have told me before now that I should have been in line at the tattoo parlor to get my stereotypical anchor emblem etched permanently on my forearm before being qualified to express myself in that manner. Sam? Gary? Chris? Tony? Ken? Where were you when I needed you??? I’m sure I’ve said it in front of them too.

Like parents who catch their toddler in some sort of naughty behavior they know they should correct but can’t resist laughing at, I suspect all my friends who are Chinese were wishing they had a video-cam going when I debased myself in that fashion. Meanwhile I, the hapless foreigner repeats ‘A-ya!’, to their great amusement.

Now I’m going to have to eradicate that one short, effective phrase of frustration from my vocabulary. After using it for over 2 years I think that will be hard to do. At the same time I will have to find and settle on an expression that does not represent language fit for a sailor, nor involve or imply fecal matter. Until I do I should probably stick to German, French or English utterances of frustration.

A-     ya!!! 

*          That I know of, there is no dictionary of Sailor Curse Words or Phrases currently in print, either in Chinese or in English. Please forgive me for leading you to believe such a tome might exist.          

1 comment:

  1. RE: A-ya
    Are you sure? My understanding of A-Ya: it is merely an expression of suprise, more in tune with "ouch, or oops". Unless people use very different expression than the rest of China, A-ya is never even considered as a mild cuss word. it is used by everyone from a toddler just learning to speak to an 80 y.o. grandma whose devouted buddist.