When we originally decided to include a slang article in our recently released Youth Issue, we made a beeline for Eveline Chao, author of the Chinese slang bible, “NIUBI!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School.” As it turns out, Chao—a Taiwanese-American who lives in Beijing—is not only a slang expert, she’s a smart cookie and funny as hell. Keep reading for some of her thoughts on the evolution of Chinese slang, how she put together the book and what it’s like being a tortured Chinese-American (to completely twist her words), along with a few gems that we couldn’t fit into the magazine.
I know you come from Maryland – so what made you decide to come to China?
In 2006 I’d already been living and working in New York City for four years and was starting to get antsy. Now I recognize that it was probably just the quarter-life crisis hitting. But a college friend told me she was going to visit another college friend of ours in Beijing and asked if I wanted to come along. I did, and in February 2006 in the dead of winter, I completely fell in love with Beijing. Six months later I had quit my job and moved here.
What was your Chinese language background before you came to Beijing?
My parents are from Taiwan but we spoke very little Chinese at home. It was enough, though, to make things like tones and general inflections a lot easier for me than for a totally new learner. But basically I studied Chinese in college, in this class specifically designed for Chinese-Americans where we went through the material at double-speed and all the lessons had these tortured dialogues like, “I watch Chinese movies at home, but eat pizza with my friends. Am I truly a Chinese or an American?” By contrast, the other regular beginner class spent the entire first semester doing tone drilling. We went through the material way too fast for any of it to stick though, so for the most part I picked up my Chinese from being here in Beijing for four years.
How did you first start learning about Chinese slang?
I was lucky enough to have a good college friend already living in Beijing who had exceptionally cool Chinese friends; one of them was a graphic designer who liked to make electronic music and had a fake Giacometti statue in his foyer that he hung his hoodies on. Within 24 hours of stepping off the plane, they picked me up and took me to IKEA and were blasting the Cure and yelling [curses we can’t print] out the window at other drivers. I was fascinated by the slang they used from the beginning and was jotting down terms they used for two years before I even thought of doing a slang book.
How did you research “NIUBI!”?
I pretty much talked about the project obsessively with every single person I met and that prompted people to both share any interesting terms that they themselves knew, and also to keep me in mind when they met other people who would know a lot of slang. For example a friend of mine who worked at the visa window at the U.S. Embassy had an applicant who edits a Chinese lesbian magazine and was going to the U.S. for a work-related conference. My friend asked the woman if she could give her phone number to me, and I called her up and met with her at Starbucks and had her teach me lesbian slang. The poor woman was probably confused and thought that her visa might hang in the balance. I also have a DJ friend who’s tight with a lot of Chinese DJ’s and hip-hop types. I got the phone number of this well-known hip-hop DJ from him and would text him questions like, “Do you know any slang words for hooking up?” Originally I was supposed to actually hang out with them to pick up slang but they were all way too cool for me and I couldn’t keep up. I’d be in bed already at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and then would get a text being like, “We’re meeting at Block 8 in an hour if you want to come out!”
And of course, I also just hired some native Chinese speakers to help me with internet research and fact-checking. Then when the chapters were written, I bugged every single Chinese friend I knew to sit down with me and go through the entries, telling me which words were wrong or out of date, which ones I hadn’t described quite right, and offer suggestions for new terms.
What are some of the most interesting or colorful examples of youth slang that you’ve come across?
脑残 (nǎocán): Means “braindead” and is a popular insult among young people.
— I feel like young people say this ALL the time. It’s like one of the most common responses to online postings/videos/etc. This may be comparable to young people in the US a few years ago responding “whatever” or “lame” or “loser” to everything.
咳 (hāi): Literally, this is the onomatopoeic word for “sigh,” but it is used to mean “high” since it sounds just like the English word.
— I mentioned this in the book in terms of drugs, but lately I’ve noticed people using it to just mean having a good time, having fun and partying. So like, you’ll hear people say things like, “Oh come to this party, women hai yi xia (我们咳一下)!” So it’s sort of getting high on excitability and fun.
囧 (jiǒng): This emoticon is used to indicate sadness, frustration, shock, or amusement. The character 囧, which dates back to ancient times, originally meant “bright” but has taken on this new meaning because it looks like a sad face (or a shocked or amused face, depending on your interpretation). “Jiǒng culture” has taken off as a full-fledged fad that has spilled over into real life—the character can even be found on T-shirts, bags and other accessories.
— I’m undecided on whether this has jumped the shark or not –I mean, you now see it in Kotex ads on the subway, of all things, and I just bought some Kleenex packets the other day with 囧 characters all over them. But it does still seem to be in wide use among youth. I think the timeline for these kinds of trendy terms lasts a little longer here than they might in the US.
What do you think have been some of the most interesting developments in slang, as far as larger trends, over the last few years?
Now is a fascinating time for slang in China. The spread of slang is a story that reflects the overall economic development of the country. One reason there hasn’t been a very useful Chinese slang book up until now is that there’s so much regionalization of language in China. Until recently there wasn’t even a Chinese word for “slang” in the same sense that we mean, just approximations that meant something closer to “regional language.” But with the country’s economic development and the fast-growing prevalence of the internet, aided by things like the government push for universal broadband access, there’s far more communication between, say, a young person in an internet cafe in some fifth-tier city in Western China, and someone in Beijing. That, and the growing numbers of young people going to college, are helping to spread slang terms very quickly across the country. For this reason the internet-slang chapter of my book is my favorite, because that’s where the most fascinating, clever, and just plain hilarious terms are getting coined, I think.
Finally—where can people buy your book?
“NIUBI!” is on sale at all the local English-language bookstores in China (The Bookworm, Charterhouse Books, Page One, etc.) and on Amazon. And yes there’s a Kindle version. In the U.S. it’s available at the usual spots—Barnes & Noble, Amazon and so on. Of course, I encourage everyone to look for it at their local independent bookstore and if they don’t have it, to request that they stock it!
Or just click on our widget below and buy it at the Amazon store online: