It’s already the end of the workweek (I work Sundays to Thursdays) and November and winter is starting off now. The last few weeks have passed by pretty fast, just like in Taiwan, and it’s not like I’m doing much. It’s both kind of eerie and pleasant, the former since it means time is moving on and I’m not getting any younger, the latter because it’s always good when the workweek finishes quickly (though workaholics probably would differ).
Another similarity with Taiwan is the workplace itself. When I’m in my office, while the work is more interesting, I don’t feel much different than before, as if I’m not really in the mainland. It’s relatively quiet, orderly, and my local colleagues all speak pretty decent English, so much that I don’t speak any Chinese with them. I actually speak less Chinese than when I was at my last company in Taiwan. It’s when my colleagues speak Chinese with their accents that obviously differ from Taiwan that I’m reminded I’m in mainland China.
However, one difference from Taiwan is the Mandarin Chinese that’s spoken here. Both the mainland and Taiwan speak Mandarin as their main language and it’s largely similar. Yet as I gradually get used to here and listen to people speak more, I’m finding out some differences, not just with accents, but with some phrases and vocabulary.
For instance, take the number one 1 (一). It’s original pronunciation is “yi“, but in the mainland, mainly the North, it’s “yao.” This is a big difference and I used to think “yao” sounded kind of crude. But after searching online, I found some likely explanations for why “yao” is used and it makes more sense. “Yi” sounds similar to “qi” (chi) which is the number seven 7. Also, if you say “yi” several times, such as 1111, it sounds weird. Whereas when you use “yao,” it’s actually easier and sounds better. Try it – say “yi-yi-yi-yi”, then “yao-yao-yao-yao” – and see which one is easier. I’ve started to say “yao” and I guess it’s an early step in becoming like a Beijinger.
In Taiwan, people such as service staff often say “bu hui (不會)” to say “you’re welcome.” In Beijing, often people like shop attendants or taxi drivers would say “mei shi (没事)” or “it’s no big deal.” Sometimes people might say “bukeqi” (不客氣) or “don’t mention it.” This one is used often in both Taiwan and the mainland. Meanwhile when people in Taiwan say goodbye, they’ll say “zaijian” (再見) or “see you again,” whereas here, you’ll often hear “manzao“(慢走) or “walk slowly (take it easy)” from service staff.
Speaking of taxis, in Taiwan they’re called “jichengche (計程車)” while in the mainland, it’s “chuzhuche (出租車).”
While it’s often said that manners aren’t as prevalent among mainlanders as it supposedly is in Taiwan, there’s an interesting form of politeness here in addressing people, usually males though, like drivers or vendors or professionals like plumbers. Basically, they’re called “shifu (師傅)” or “master/teacher” which seems rather overly formal. However, I find it is used sincerely and not in an ironic way. In Taiwan, “xiansheng (先生)” or “mister” suffices when talking to a male driver or service staff or any male stranger in general.
Then, mainlanders often use the word “zamen (咱們)” to mean “us” in an exclusive form – as in “you and me.” We is usually “women,” and in Taiwan that’s applicable to all usages of “we.” I’ve never heard anyone in Taiwan say “zamen.” In the mainland, “women” is used, but more to mean “we” in a general sense when talking about a lot of people, and “zamen” as I mentioned above. This “women” is not the same as English, but is pronounced like “worr-mun.” Since Chinese, whether Mandarin, Cantonese or others, is spoken with tones, pronunciation is very important and strongly determines what it is you’re saying. For instance, Mandarin has four tones so it is possible to pronounce something in four different ways, which of course results in four different words. Cantonese has much more than four so it’s even harder.
Of course, when it comes to women as in ladies, there’s an important distinction in how to call them. In Taiwan or Hong Kong, young women can be addressed as “xiaojie (小姐)” whether by itself or with the woman’s surname in front of “xiaojie.” In the mainland however, don’t call women that. If you’re talking to a female service staff you can say “gunian (姑娘) or the always reliable “fuwusheng (服務員)!” This is because in mainland China, “xiaojie” is slang for prostitute. I don’t know how this usage came about but I’ll try to find out.
Finally, a lot of times when you ask people if it’s alright to do something, people say “xing (行)” or “yes,” while in Taiwan, people often say “keyi (可以)” or “you can.” But to say “no, you can’t,” people in Taiwan often use “bu xing (不行).”
I should point out that I’m mainly using the Mandarin spoken in Beijing and the North as my reference, since China is a large country and there are differences in Mandarin between different regions and provinces, as some helpful commenters have mentioned below.