My first three months in China had equipped me with Chinese fluent enough to make the fruit vendors across the street from where I live comment to each other: “Hey, this guy’s only been in China three months and listen to that Chinese!” But the Chinese that came out of my first three months was limited to the only city I had visited: Beijing. And it caused problems.
Yet my second visit to China started in the far southwestern corner, in Yunnan. There, my Mandarin was understood, but I stumbled over word choices I had never heard in Beijing. Mán (蛮) for “pretty” or “very” threw me for a loop at first. Mán is infrequent in Beijing, but I picked it up the first time I heard it.
What truly shocked me was my first trip to a southern restaurant. As I was enjoying a bowl of noodles, the man sitting across from me yelled across the restaurant at the waiters near the counter:
“Little monkey, c’m’ere a moment!”
Soon, another customer rose her voice, “Little monkey, check please!”
The restaurant was awash with customers ordering around the “little monkeys” to do their bidding.
My humble midwestern sensibilities had me appalled. I knew China was not a bastion of politeness toward servers, but ordering around waiters with the epithet “little monkeys” was beyond any nation’s sense of decorum.
Later that night, I talked on the phone with my Chinese friend studying in the US who was originally from the area.
“So people here call waiters xiǎo hóuzi, little monkeys, huh? Isn’t that kind of rude?”
Instantly there was laughter on the other end of the line.
“That’s not xiǎo hóuzi, that’s xiǎo huǒzi!”
Amid the clatter of restaurant background noise and the distortion of yelling, “young man” had turned into “little monkey” in my ears. It was a small difference in Chinese, but a big enough difference in meaning to shock this newcomer into knowing better. If I see ever see those Beijing fruit vendors again, I’ll make sure to let them know their verdict was a bit hasty.