Did you say nine or wine?

chinese food in bowls on a yellow table cloth

There are so many positives that come with learning any local language when you travel, but as Intrepid’s Greg Mazzola discovered in China, sometimes a little knowledge can lead to a very confusing conversation…

“In China jiu means wine to cover any variety of rice or grape wines, ranging from super charged 100 proof bai jiu, white wine (not to be confused with Chablis), to sweet moderate yellow rice wines and standard grape wine, often referred to as hong jiu. Jiu also means long, old, or nine, which can cause some consternation when trying to order wine with nine cups.

Pen and notepad at the ready, our server in traditional qi pao dress patiently stood tableside and repeated, “Yao ji ge beizi?” (How many cups do you want?)

After successfully ordering a multitude of dishes, how could she miss my request for nine wine cups? I had just ordered the famous shaoxing wine for our group, the most celebrated rice wine from China’s Zhejiang province, and requested nine wine glasses. “Gei women yi ping shaoxing jiu. Hai you jiu beizi.” Please give us a bottle of shaoxing wine. And, nine cups.

Perhaps she just hadn’t heard me, so I repeated it again, “Gei women jiu bezi.” Then turned back to our circle of 12 as we anticipated the feast of seemingly endless dishes for any proper Chinese banquet.

One of the great experiences of travelling in China is the challenge of language. With its multitude of homonyms and four tones, trying to master Mandarin is definitely a brain twister. For example, there are more than 30 entries in the dictionary for “ji” which can define chicken, mail, skill, or machine, among others. Assuming your head doesn’t explode while trying to keep all this straight when communicating with locals, there is ample opportunity for great comedy.

Our group were all enjoying the splendid views of Xi Hu (West Lake), not be confused with xi hu (which could translate to happy tiger) while waiting for our fist dishes to arrive. This Xi Hu is the famous lake on the edge of Hangzhou city and site that inspired great poems from Mao ze Dong. While the scenery was intoxicating, the clarification of wine cups was not as satisfying for our group.

She asked again, “Ji ge beizi?” (“How many cups?”)

“Jiu beizi,” I repeated and turned back to the table. I could sense she hadn’t moved and then it came again.

“Hao de, ji ge?” (OK, how many?)

The verbal volley was wearing me down faster than speed ping pong – not to mention we were all getting anxious for wine. In one last effort, I repeated, “Gei women jiu bei ze. Jiu jiu bei zi.” (Give us 9 wine cups).

Ohhhh, she nodded, relieved that the outsider had finally cracked the code and said “nine” instead of “ihavenoideawhatsallabout.” She departed, promptly returned with 9 cups.

Next time, I think we’ll just pass the bottle 🙂

It should be noted that had I added “ge” on the end of jiu for number, it would have clarified the matter much earlier. We live and learn when we travel!”

Ever experienced your own language blooper on your travels?

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About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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