What I lost in translation at both ends of the Great Divide.

And what I found for making that attempt to bridge the chasm.

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

老张和小黄 Of Communist Chang & Pregnant Yellow – Part I


In March this year, I was one of the guests of honor in a company annual dinner. After we were seated as is the Chinese dining culture, the toasting begun. I had a headache after lecturing the whole day and was trying to politely fend off all the toasts when an elegant lady came to make me one I could not refuse.

“Do you remember me?” she asked. I did not, cursing my poor recognition of faces.

“You once asked me what was my name and when I told you it was huáng ...”

This brought back memories of one of my most embarrassing mistake in learning the language. It was a terrible faux pas on my part. For when she told me her name was huáng, I innocently added “Oh, is it 黄色 huángsè 的黄?” She shyly corrected me “Oh, you should not say that! It is 大肚 dàdù (meaning big stomach or pregnant woman) .” {The shape of the character has a big center looking like a big stomach. As the same pronunciation can stand for different Chinese characters, the Chinese devised creative ways to describe characters to clarify which they meant}.

This of course left me all confused as I did not know then why it was wrong to describe with黄色. What is wrong with yellow color? It was only later that I found out that 黄色 also means decadent, obscene and pornographic. It is the oriental equivalent of blue as in “blue film”. It is interesting to note that the Chinese word 色情 sèqíng for pornography is made up of the characters [] meaning color and [qíng] meaning feeling or emotion. Specifically yellow or was the color chosen to represent the decadent. So I found out the hard way that a gentleman never uses yellow to describe a lady.

(Check out Part II for another similar mistake involving my own surname )



  1. sounds OK to me to use yellow, perhaps we are not being too particular about the language bah, but I will try to remind myself to avoid that

  2. Ha ha. You're also English educated which is why it seems okay to us. Think about it - if your name is "blue" and someone were to remark "Oh, blue as in blue film?" It is not so nice, isn't it? :)

  3. Sure left a lasting impression on her! Hopefully no one else heard you when you made that faux pas

  4. Ha ha. Looks like it though not in the way I prefer :). It was ironic because when I was giving my presentation, I thought of using this example of my difficulty in precise communication. In the end I did not and never thought I would meet this lady again or that she will be the one who reminded me!