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Chinese Language Blunders

After spending ten days visiting a friend in Russia, I arrived in Beijing, China in September 2005. I would be staying there for three months to study the Chinese language and history at Capital Normal University (首都师范大学). I had been learning Chinese on my own for a few months and knew enough to get by– or so I thought. Upon arriving in China, I quickly discovered one of the inconveniences of this country: There is no toilet paper in any of the public restrooms anywhere! They don’t like to provide it because their pipe systems don’t work very well, and the toilets are easily clogged. So people just carry tissue around with them everywhere. You’re not supposed to flush down any toilet paper, either– you put it in a wastebasket next to the toilet. It’s kind of gross, I know, but the toilets really will clog otherwise! (Yeah, unfortunately I did find that out the hard way…)

My dorm room at CNU

Not only was there no toilet paper in the public restrooms; there was none in the bathroom of my new dorm room, either. So, on the day of my arrival, I set out on a quest to find toilet paper– and made my first blunder in the Chinese language.


I tried my best to go to sleep, but although I was definitely tired, somehow the sleep just didn’t seem to come. (Jet lag, unfortunately, tends to do this to you.) So I laid there in bed for awhile, wanting to at least get some rest, and then I decided I might as well find something to keep myself busy. First I started to unpack some things, and then I decided that maybe I should go try and solve the whole toilet paper dilemma. Assuming that there must be a closet or something where you could just go and get toilet paper, it seemed that all I had to do was to ask one of the cleaning ladies who seemed to be roaming up and down the hallways. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to say “toilet paper” in Chinese. But hey, that’s what dictionaries are for, right? So I pulled out my handy-dandy “Langenscheidt Pocket Dictionary” to look it up. According to the dictionary, “toilet paper” was “cezhi” (厕纸). A little nervous about speaking Chinese, but determined to complete my quest of finding toilet paper, I then marched out into the hallway to find one of the cleaning ladies. And voilà– there was one right there in front of me! Mustering my courage, I walked up to her and said:

Qing wen, zai nar keyi qu cezhi?” (请问,在那儿可以取厕纸?)(Excuse me, where can I get cezhi?)

The woman narrowed her eyes at me, as if I had spinach stuck in my teeth or something. Embarrassed that I apparently hadn’t been understood, I repeated what I’d just said. Still wearing that same you’ve-got-something-in-your-teeth look, she asked in a careful sort of voice, “Shenme zhi?” (什么纸?)(What paper?)

Flustered, I stammered, “Ce.. cesuo de zhi…” (厕,厕所的纸)(The… the paper for the bathroom…)

Narrowing her eyes even further, she said very slowly, “Weishengzhi.” (卫生纸)(Toilet paper.) This, apparently, was the correct word for “toilet paper.” Feeling angry at my dictionary for teaching me the wrong word, I asked the woman where I could get toilet paper, to which she responded that I had to buy it. (I had to buy toilet paper?! You’d think the school would just provide it!) She then explained that there was a shop somewhere on the second floor of the building.

Annoyed, I got into the elevator to go down to the second floor, but then another caucasian girl stepped in. Hoping that she spoke English, I decided to try asking her if she knew anything about how to get toilet paper. The good news was that she spoke English, but the bad news was that she had just arrived herself, and apparently didn’t know anything more about how things worked here than I did. But suddenly, the Chinese man in the elevator with us turned to me and began speaking in perfect English. He said something about how there was a very convenient shop across the street from the dorm building where you could buy all sorts of things. He walked outside with me and pointed out where the place was, and even offered to lend me some money. Stunned by his incredible English and grateful for his kindness, I thanked him for his help, but I didn’t take his money. However, as I had absent-mindedly forgotten to exchange money at the airport, all I had were a bunch of US dollars, some Russian rubles, and the 20 Chinese yuan (equivalent to about $2.50 US) Professor Selles had lent me– all of which I had left back in my room. It had never occurred to me that I might have to actually buy toilet paper. So, after the kind stranger had gone on his way, I went back up to my room to get the 20 yuan, and at some point I went back down to the second floor and managed to find the shop the cleaning lady had been talking about.


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should not be too quick trust dictionaries. (My phrase “在那儿可以取厕纸?” was grammatically strange as well, by the way. It would have been much more natural to say “卫生纸在哪里?” (“Weishengzhi zai nali”), literally “Where’s the toilet paper?”.)

After three months in Beijing, though, my Chinese did improve quite a bit. It improved even more after I’d spent a year living in Taiwan later, to the point where I got very comfortable speaking the language and was able to get by very well without resorting to English when I got stranded and ended up having to spend a night in China on my way home to Japan from my trip to Thailand last year (whew– three countries in one sentence!) I also had plenty of tissues with me that time.

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  • Ahh, this one takes me back 🙂 I can't even recall how many similar blunders I made living in China. A major part of my job while I was there was to act as an in-between for other westerners, even though I only had a few months of Chinese education at first myself. Even if you have the word right, until tones really "click" there's a fair chance you just said it wrong…

    • janafadness

      Wow– you must have had to learn fast, then! The good thing about really embarrassing yourself with mistakes is that you're unlikely to make the same mistakes again!

      • 对。。。但是,三年多我根本来说没有说中文。我希望我不久以后有回去中国的机会。

        • 其实我也很久一直没有说了。我的中文本来没有那么好,应该好好学会的。。。 一天可能会再开始学,可是对我来说中文这个语言有点难继续努力学的。

          • 好好学习天天向上!


            哈哈这是很奇怪:用GOOGLE TRANSLATE的话,翻译是《that chicken was delicious》。肯定不是正是对。


          • LOL! 现在知道菜单上的奇怪的翻译是从哪里来的啦 XD

  • Mark

    What did 厕纸 mean then?

    • It does actually mean “toilet paper”, but apparently it’s not used very often in conversation.