I come from Holland. Holland in Chinese is pronounced Helan. Sounds a bit like each other, right? But that was not the reason why some Chinese people looked very shocked and surprised when I told them that I wasn’t American, but came from “Helan.” Whether it is my insufficient pronunciation and odd accent, or some listeners inability to clearly distinguish between the “l” and the “n” sounds (in some Chinese dialects, there is in fact no difference between the two), but time and again, people misunderstood what I was saying, and replied with a look of awe on their faces “HeNAN?” Now, Henan is the name of a province in China, not a country in Europe. My initial reaction was always a polite “no, HeLAN,” but after this happened a couple of times, I wanted to answer: “Yes, this is what people from HeNAN look like, tall, blond, big round eyes, and with a crappy accent when they speak Mandarin.” In the end, I never did it. To avoid confusion, I simply added “Europe” (Ouzhou in Chinese) to a clearly pronounced “heLAN.” Often times, these kind of misunderstandings are due to insufficient language skills, or beginners mistakes. But even in the language itself, there can be characteristics, such as the frequent occurrence of homophones in Mandarin (words that sound the same, but have a different meaning), that lead to such misunderstandings. Most of the time they are funny, sometimes they are embarrassing. We have collected them in this series, “Say What?! Misunderstandings in Mandarin,” with help from Haiwang Yuan and other ChinaConnectU contributors. Today, in the first episode: “always compliment the entire girlfriend.”
A foreign student beginning to learn Chinese: “Your girlfriend looks pretty！” 你的女朋友很漂亮 (Ni de nupeng you hen piaoliang)
B: “Oh you are flattering her.” 哪里，哪里 (Na li, na li). ( The Chinese reads and sounds like “Where, where”).
Puzzled by the response, the student answers hesitantly: “She looks pretty from head to toe.” 从头到脚都漂亮 (Cong tou dao jiao dou piao liang)