Linguistic advice for when you’re broke and need a loan
Your true friends will be there through thick and thin, good and bad—unless you need money. Oh, yes, your friends will be there when you want to talk about your colorectal surgery or Big Bang Theory fan fiction, but the moment you need a loan, you’ll find them staring at their shoes and kicking the dirt. Nothing kills a good friendship like loaning or borrowing cash, but, sometimes you have no other choice. Here are some tips on asking for a handout in Chinese without killing your friendships.
The first thing that one should keep in mind is that you should probably not use the word “money.” People prefer to describe their difficulty in a more euphemistic manner; for that there is 手头紧 (shǒutóu jǐn), which roughly means “tight fists.” If you don’t want to give a specific description about what happened to you, you can go with this all-purpose term:
It’s hard to explain, but recently my fists are a little tight. So, I have to come to you for help.
Zhēn bù hǎoyìsi kāikǒu, dànshì wǒ zuìjìn shǒutóu yǒudiǎn er jǐn, zhǐhǎo zhǎo nǐ bāngmáng.
There you go. Now no one needs to know that you gambled all your money away or that you spent it on that nice Nigerian prince you met online. It’s hard to explain, so cough up. They may ask:
Well, how much do you need?
Nǐ xūyào duōshǎo qián?
Say the number and add “你方便吗 (Nǐ fāngbiàn ma)?” This “Are you convenient?” has at least two meanings: “Do you have enough money at hand?” and “Are you willing to lend it to me?” Regardless, it looks like a yes-or-no question.
A: I need 5,000 RMB. Is that convenient?
Wǒ xūyào wǔqiān kuài qián. Nǐ fāngbiàn ma?
B: I just have 3,000 at hand.
Wǒ xiànzài shǒutóu zhǐyǒu sānqiān.
A: That will also help. Could you lend it to me now?
Nà yě xíng. Néng xiān jiè gěi wǒ ma?
Nobody likes lending money, so if they hesitate, it’s human nature; some people would more happily part with a limb than their beloved, precious money. You need to win their trust. For example, you could make a promise about the return date and explain how the interest will be paid. Heck, write them a receipt if it makes them feel better.
A: I will return your money in three months with interest. I am writing a receipt.
Sān gè yuè zhīhòu, lián běn dài lì hái gěi nǐ, wǒ zhè jiù xiě jiètiáo.
B: You don’t need to do that.
Bùyòng zhème máfan.
A: I insist. It’s said that, ‘Financial matters should be settled clearly even between brothers.
Háishì yào de. Qīn xiōngdì míng suànzhàng ma.
Lending to a friend who’s genuinely in need can be like delivering coal on a cold, snowy day, or 雪中送炭 (xuě zhōng sòng tàn). As a general rule, 救急不救穷 (jiù jí bù jiù qióng), that is, you lend financial aid to those in an emergency, but not those who are perennially in need of money. If you find yourself in the position of the lender facing a not-so-urgent situation, you won’t want to say “no.” You’ll tap-dance around it, but you don’t want to look like a jerk. For this tactic, some pretexts are necessary.
If it’s not obvious, you need to plead poverty. To end the conversation quickly, the best method is to make it clear that you have no money. Based on this principle, the only thing you need to do is to give some believable whereabouts for your cash.
I’d like to, but all my money is tied up in stocks.
Wǒ yě xiǎng jiè gěi nǐ, dàn shǒu shàng de qián dōu bèi gǔpiào tàoláole.
Or, the “Double 11” shopping circus can be blamed.
If only you’d come to me a week earlier! I spent my paycheck during Double 11.
Nǐ yàoshi shàng gè xīngqí lái zhǎo wǒ jiù hǎole! Wǒ shuāng shíyī bǎ gōngzī dōu huāle.
The second strategy is finding a scapegoat, claiming that you are not the one who controls the purse strings. Just transfer the responsibility to your parents or spouse and say that you have no say in financial matters.
My wife manages the money in our family and I am afraid she won’t agree.
Wǒmen jiā shì wǒ lǎopó guǎn qián, kǒngpà tā bù huì tóngyì.
The most effective way to avoid lenders is to live a low-key life and show them you don’t have much to offer. Nip any attempt to borrow money in the bud. Folk wisdom tells us: if you are poor, no one bothers visiting even if you live downtown, but if you are wealthy, distant relatives come to your door even if you live deep inside a mountain. (贫居闹市无人问，富在深山有远亲。Pín jū nàoshì wú rén wèn, fù zài shēnshān yǒu yuǎnqīn.)
If you are faced with a true friend that you really care for, be as generous as you like, but remember that no matter how good of a friend they are, they may be a horrible debtor. When the deadline is due and they don’t have your money or a reasonable explanation, things can get very ugly. As we say in Chinese, 欠债还钱，天经地义。(Qiàn zhài hái qián, tiānjīngdìyì. Paying back debts is a mandate of heaven.) Still, be gentle.
A: I have a vague recollection that I lent you some money. Is that right?
Wǒ yǐnyuē jìdé hǎoxiàng jièguò qián gěi nǐ. Yǒu zhè huí shì ma?
B: Yes, you did. I will return the money tomorrow.
Shì de, wǒ míngtiān hái nǐ.
A: No rush. I was just asking.
Bù zháo jí, wǒ jiùshì wèn yīxià.
A perhaps more Machiavellian approach would be to ask after their well-being.
A: The other day you said you were kind of hard up. Is everything OK now? Do you need some more loans?
Nèitiān nǐ shuō shǒutóu yǒudiǎn er jǐn. Xiànzài zěnme yàngle? Xū bù xūyào zài jiè nǐ diǎn er qián?
B: The problem is solved, all thanks to your help. I will return the money soon.
Wèntí yǐjīng jiějuéle, duōkuī nǐ bāngmáng. Wǒ huì jǐnkuài hái qián.
This is a very risky strategy, however, because they may actually need to borrow more and you’ve just painted yourself into a corner. So feel free to make up your own excuse.
A: I am sorry to ask, but there’s an emergency. Can you give me that money I lent you last time?
Bù hǎoyìsi, wǒ yǒu jǐnjí qíngkuàng. Nǐ néng bǎ shàng cì de qián hái gěi wǒ ma?
Whether you’re the lender or borrower, it’s always good to pay your debts on time. Remember: 好借好还，再借不难 (Hǎo jiè hào huán, zài jiè bù nán. Return what you borrow on time, you’ll be welcome to borrow next time).
Can You Share Some Change? is a story from our issue, “Wildest Fantasy.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.