Western eyes (11): Chinese and the N-word

 Chinese and the N-word

Chinese portal  “Hey, Liisa, have you also noticed how Chinese people keep saying the N-word? Not just once but over and over again?“, I asked my friend in confusion and she agreed.

It was my first time in China and I had no previous experience with either the people or the language and the only word that I thought I could recognise sounded exactly like ‘nigga’ – something unacceptably discourteous to say back where I was from. I felt I needed to solve this mystery - it couldn’t possibly be the case that this N-word is an offensive loanword deliberately being used so liberally.

I started learning Mandarin with the help of my new colleagues as soon as I had settled in. Nevertheless the mystery remained there for weeks. When I asked a colleague directly, she wouldn’t understand my concern.

“What do you mean, what N-word?” To her it was just there, an intrinsic part of Chinese speech and she couldn’t quite understand what I was trying to point out. Perhaps it was my very beginner and incomprehensible pronunciation.

However, it wasn’t just me – every single foreigner I met agreed that Chinese people use the N-word rather freely and no one could really figure out why.

Today there are numerous topics and threads on sites such as Reddit, where foreigners are discussing this phenomenon.

Some years ago, a stand-up comedian Russell Peters even incorporated this curious case into one of his performances.

The question can be easily answered going through people’s comments in the threads, the most useful ones being from Chinese and English bilinguals. However, when I first faced this mystery not all could be answered by Internet. Instead, things got a bit clearer once I started learning the written script and got introduced to Chinese classifiers or measure words – in Mandarin it is usually necessary to insert an appropriate measure word between the numeral and noun and the most generally used classifier would be 个 gè.

It is often used after the demonstratives 这 zhè, meaning "this", and 那nà, “that". 那nà and 个gè together comprise one the most commonly, yet often unintentionally, used phrases, meaning “that one” and it serves the purpose of something roughly equivalent to the English “um..”, “uh..”, a phrase people would repeat while thinking of or recalling something specific. 那个 nà gè pronounced clearly and slowly sounds nothing close to the N-word, but, when used in a sentence several times in a row and said really quickly, it indeed does start to sound as if someone is being battered with rude insults.

Despite how great my desire to sound authentic when speaking Mandarin is, I always try to be as accurate and clear as possible when using那个 nà gè. At least when there are any non-Chinese speakers nearby.

In the end, my English speaking brain has attached a certain stigma to the N-word and using it, even if it is just a phrase in a different language with a completely different meaning, would make me feel as if I was being culturally insensitive. All the same, whenever in a foreign language speaking country, I do advise to take a step back and analyse the situation first instead of taking immediate offence.

How likely is it that a random person in the street is just throwing out racist words? That guy was probably just discussing his dinner plans…