the perils of textbook language learning

中国留学生在国外的高速公路出车祸了,连人带车翻下悬崖,交警赶到后向下喊话:how are you?留学生答:i’m fine,thank you。然后交警走了,留学生就死了.


A Chinese student studying abroad got into an accident on a highway.  The car and those in it fell off a cliff.  A traffic cop arrived as quickly as possible and yelled down “How are you?”  The student replied “I’m fine, thank you.”  Then the traffic cop left and the student died.


车祸, che huo- traffic accident

翻下, fan xia- fall over

悬崖, xuanya- a cliff, an overhang

交警, jiao jing- traffic police



distrupting normal operations

小张乘公共汽车上班时钱包常被偷。一天,上车前他把厚厚的一沓纸折好放进信封,下车后发现又被偷了。   第二天,他刚上车不久,觉得腰间有一硬物,掏出来一看,是昨天的那个信封。信封上写着:“请不要开这样的玩笑,影响正常工作。谢谢!”


Little Zhang often had his wallet stolen while riding the bus to work. Before he got on the bus one day, he put a thick pile of folded papers into an envelope, and after he got off the bus, he discovered it had been stolen.  The next day, soon after he got on the bus, he felt something hard poking his side.  He pulled it out and took a look; it was the envelope from yesterday.  On it was written, “Please don’t play this kind of trick, it disrupts our normal operations.  Thank you!”


被偷, bei tou- to be stolen

一沓纸折, yi ta zhi zhe- a pile of folded papers

硬物, ying wu- a hard object, something hard

掏出, tao chu- to pull out, to dig out

正常工作, zheng chang gong zuo- regular work, normal operations


explanation of “our house’s rat”

This joke doesn’t seem funny in English at all, and after thinking about it for quite a while, I’m not sure there is any way to both properly translate it while keeping it funny.  Translating it any way that allows the reader to quickly understand also cuts down the humor simply because nobody likes having a joke spelled out for them (which is also why our explanatory posts are rarely funny).

Getting back to the joke itself, all you have to keep in mind is that the 药 in 老鼠药, on its own is usually translated as “medicine”.  The child, not knowing that 老鼠药 is actually rat poison, assumes that the mother is trying to cure the rat of some disease by giving it this “medicine”.

our house’s rat



Child: Mommy, what is that?

Mother: That’s rat poison.

Child: Mommy, is our house’s rat sick?


老鼠药, lao shu yao- rat poison

生病, sheng bing- to get sick

explanation of “How much for the whole night?”

Creative solutions to common problems.  Though this joke might at first glance seem to be about prostitutes, it’s really about how much trouble Chinese people sometimes go through to buy train tickets. Waiting outside a train station overnight to buy tickets is by no means unheard of.

Train tickets are usually only released for sale to the public between 10 and 20 days before their departure date.  Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that many tour companies are given access to these tickets first, and sometimes buy up multiple train cars.  Likewise, 票贩子, ticket scalpers, often try to purchase the more desirable tickets for high-demand trains.

Especially around major holiday periods like Spring Festival, train tickets are sought after like new iPhones in the US.  People form lines that snake around entire city blocks just to get their hands on one. Even doing so, they may find the train sold out before they reach the ticket window, or otherwise, there might only be left 站票, standing tickets.  The unfortunate folks who purchase standing tickets may end up without a seat (usually sitting on their own luggage) for 10, 20, even 40 hours on a long-distance train.


票贩子, piao fanzi- ticket scalper

站票, zhan piao- standing ticket

How much for the whole night?


A man asked a street hooker, “How much for the night?”  She answered, “200 yuan.”  He responded, “Can we do anything I want?” to which she said, “yes!”  The man happily said, “Go to the train station for me tonight and standing in line to buy tickets!”

街边小姐, jiebian xiaojie- street hooker (literally, street-side lady)

包夜, baoye- whole night, all night (in this case, “the night”)

Money money money



A kid asked a rich man, “Uncle, why are you so rich?”

The rich man rubbed the kid’s head and said, “When I was young, my dad gave me an apple.  I sold it and got two apples.  After that, I got four apples.”  Pensively, the kid said, “Oh, uncle, I think I understand.”  The rich man replied, “Huh, what do you understand!?  After that, my dad died and I inherited his property…”


英语老师为了强调词汇积累的重要性,说:“一个单词用10遍,这个词就会跟随你一辈子。”教室最后一排的女孩闻听忽然念叨起来:“money, money, money…”


To stress the importance of accumulating vocabulary, an English teacher said, “Use a word ten times, and it will be with you for life.”  A girl in the back row of the classroom heard this, and suddenly started saying, “Money, money, money…”


小朋友, xiao pengyou- child, kid

富翁, fuweng- rich person

若有所思, ruo you suo si- pensive

你 懂你妹, ni dong ni mei- “What do you understand?”/”You don’t understand at all.” (colloquial, somewhat rude) literally, “You understand your sister.”

继承, ji cheng- inherit

词汇积累, ci hui ji lei- vocabulary accumulation

一辈子, yi beizi- for a lifetime

losing your stuffing

有一只肉包子, 有一天它去喝。它喝醉了, 于是它一边走一边扶着电线杆吐,吐着吐着,它变成了馒头。

One day, a meat-stuffed bun went out drinking.  He got so drunk that he was walking along propping himself up on electric poles, puking.  He puked and puked until he turned into a steamed bun.

肉包子, rou baozi- meat-stuffed steamed bun

喝醉了, he zui le- drunk, drink to excess

于是, yu shi- so, (in this case “so… that”)

电线杆, dian xian gan(r)- electric pole

吐, tu- spit, puke

馒头, man tou- steamed bun (no stuffing!)

explanation of “losing your stuffing”

There’s one thing to keep in mind while reading this joke.  Baozi (meat-stuffed buns) have filling, and mantou (steamed buns) don’t.  That is, mantou are basically baozi without the stuffing.  Illustrations below!







explanation of “Intel inside (probably 宅男 outside) “

First things first, I’m complicating stuff by putting some  untranslated Chinese in the title of the post.  So I’ll start there.  That 宅男 (zhai nan) stuff just refers to a very bookish boy.  nciku defines it as otaku… I’m no expert there (unfortunately!), so I’ll just point it out and let others figure out whether it’s accurate.  Anyway, zhainan is apt here, since this is a very nerdy joke.

So, if you’re fairly nerdy, or if you pay attention to advertising, you might know that Intel has used a particular jingle for years and years.  It’s a series of atmospheric melodic dinging sounds.  Here’s a youtube video of it in all its glory:

Now that you’ve got that in mind, let’s think about what the Chinese for “The light! Wait for the light! Wait for the light!” sounds like.  It’s literally,  “Deng! Dengdeng, dengdeng.”  With tones (deng1 deng3deng1 deng3deng1), it could seriously start to sound like the Intel jingle. The 1 tone is flat and slightly above natural register, and the 3 tone is a kind of froggy low tone that’s much lower than the 1 tone.

Finally, I should mention that I’ve taken some license in translating the friend’s response to the “dengdeng.”  Even though “就你有英特尔啊” should be something like “It’s you who have Intel!”, I’ve decided to go with the well-known Intel slogan, “Intel inside,” since it’s clearly supposed to refer to some such phrase.  Anyway, I’m interested if anyone knows whether this is actually a common advertising slogan for Intel in the China market.