by Bing Ji Ling

I had the great fortune (and one hell of an adventure) of living in Shanghai in the late ’90s when a foreign presence was still quite new. In fact, in a city of 14 million at the time, there were only about 20,000 non Chinese. Everyone knew everyone, and everyone hung out at a handful of places. I was playing at a jazz/blues club called the Cotton Club (of course), which was sort of the epicenter of the ex-pat scene. Strangely, I never really played jazz or blues before I went to China, which isn’t exactly the birthplace of the blues. It was an opportunity that fell into my lap through an old college acquaintance, and I jumped on the chance to see Asia, and get paid for it.

Bing Ji Ling’s “Move On”

Funny story is, the first night that I played I got booed off the stage. I landed from San Francisco at 7 p.m. and was on stage at 10 p.m. The previous performers (up to that point they changed monthly) were big, burly blues guys, playing Lead Belly covers and the like. Being more of a soul-singer, I opened with “Isn’t She Lovely,” thinking that would be a crowd pleaser. Not one minute into the song, I was sent packing by a group of drunk Germans who screamed “Where’s Matt?” the guy who was there before me. The Chinese owner pulled me off the stage and put on a B.B. King CD. Over the next few days, I regrouped, put together a band from people who came into the open mic night and proceeded to blow the roof off that place for the subsequent year.

Although my bio states that I became fluent in Mandarin Chinese during the time I lived in Shanghai, I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify. I would say I became “conversationally fluent,” in that by the end I was able to communicate and participate in most conversations, without too much trouble. If people started talking about computers, politics or more advanced topics, I would be lost! Furthermore, that was some time ago, and I’ve forgotten quite a bit. Nonetheless, here are a few essential phrases.

Chinese (simplified): 这不是我的问题!
Pinyin: Zhè bùshì wǒ de wèntí!
English: It’s not my problem!

The UN mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade when I was living in Shanghai. Some friends and I were at an afternoon party at some rich Danish guy’s house, when we heard that there was a huge mob outside the U.S. Consulate around the corner from where we were. We didn’t know what had happened, but we decided to go check out the scene. We were the only non-Chinese people there when we pulled up to an angry mass of people throwing bricks over the walls of the consulate, breaking windows and lights. In a matter of minutes, we figured out what was going on, but it was too late. A large group had surrounded us and started a barrage of questions that we really didn’t understand. At that point, my vocabulary was pretty limited. I wanted to say “It’s not my war” or “It’s not a conflict that I endorse” or something like that. What I ended up saying was more like “Hey man, it’s not my problem!” Needless to say, that incited the crowd even more, and they began “attacking” us, meaning a lot of aggressive grabbing and pushing. The Chinese do not strike each other. Even the most intense fight is more often than not what we would consider a shoving match. I managed to get free, but I ended up losing a bag with a Palm Pilot, mini-disc recorder (Ah, ’90s technology) and a wad of cash.

Chinese (simplified): 馬馬虎虎
Pinyin: mǎmǎ hǔhǔ
English: so-so

The first two characters mean “horse,” and the second two characters mean “tiger.” It’s a way of saying, it’s neither one nor the other—it’s so-so, mediocre. This is a pretty common expression. When I heard what it actually met, I was fascinated with the explanation. There are countless examples in the Chinese language of this sort.

Chinese (simplified): 你有笔吗?
Pinyin: Nǐ yǒu bǐ ma?
English: Do you have a pen?

After about six months in China, I was getting pretty comfortable communicating with people, especially girls. They were the best teachers! One night at the club, I met a lovely young gal and wanted to get her number. All of the girls working in the bar were watching me like a hawk and eavesdropping on my attempt to pick up this young lady. I turned to one of the staff and asked “Nǐ yǒu bǐ ma?/Do you have a pen?” Thing is, any given word could have four different meanings, as there are four different tones in Mandarin. Instead of asking if she had a “pen,” I asked her if she had a “vagina.” She said “Dāngrán!/Of course!” Then I asked if I could use it, and everyone hit the floor. Pretty classic moment.

Chinese (simplified): 慢慢走
Pinyin: Màn man zǒu.
English: Walk slowly.

This is a classic phrase that you often hear older people say at parting. It’s like saying “Take it easy,” but to me it feels much more meaningful. It’s as if every time you say goodbye to someone, you sincerely remind them to take time to stop and smell the roses. Beautiful.

Chinese (simplified): 我是一名宇航员
Pinyin: Wǒ shì yī míng yǔháng yuán
English: I am an astronaut.

After a while, I felt like I needed to challenge myself. Each day, I would pick a few new words and try to incorporate them into a conversation. An easy way of spicing things up was to claim that I was something absurd and then try to talk my way through it. This was one of my favorites. Not that people didn’t trip out on me enough as it was!

Check out Bing Ji Ling here.