Here’s another story told to me by my wonderful Chinese teacher, Yáng Méi (Carrie). It’s quite similar to the first one, but then again, most of her stories involve her hapless students and misunderstandings in restaurants.
This particular student is another American, but this guy is a super serious businessman. Carrie claims that she’s never seen him laugh. Having studied for a few months, he was comfortable with ordering food in fast food places, but like any beginner, had quite a few gaps in his vocabulary.
Having walked into a KFC (which are, by the way, fucking abundant in Shanghai) and successfully ordered some fried chicken and fries over the counter, he paid the bill and was presented with his food. Just as he was about to walk away, he realised that he hadn’t asked for any tomato ketchup, which they give away for free with a meal if you ask for it. He knew how to say tomato – fānqié – but he couldn’t quite remember the word for sauce – jiàng.
He figured that “tomato” was enough for them to understand what he wanted, so he beckoned the girl behind the counter back towards him using the universal hand gesture and prepared to ask for “tomato”. Unfortunately, because he couldn’t remember the word for sauce properly, he mangled the word (which, believe me, is very easy to do when you’re put on the spot and not confident with what you’re trying to say!).
Instead of saying fān qié jiàng (“fan-chee-yay-jang”), he came out with fángjiān (“fang-jan”). Similar, right? There he was, beckoning the girl towards him, while repeating “Fángjiān! Fángjiān!”. After he’d said it a few times, the girl’s eyes widened, her face taking on an expression of pure horror, and she ran off, leaving him standing at the counter, confused and ketchup-less. What the hell?
A week later, he explained the story to Carrie, who – trying desperately to keep a straight face – explained that “fángjiān” actually means “room”. So what he’d actually been doing is beckoning the young girl towards him and asking her if she wanted to get a room. Awkward.