I’ve heard people joke, especially pre-9-11, about how Americans think there are only two kinds of people in the world: Americans and Foreigners. Well that applies at least as much in China; I’ve heard Chinese tell that joke about themselves, that there are only two countries: The Middle Kingdom and The Outside Kingdom. And to a Chinese learner’s half-tuned ear the way people talk sometimes sounds ridiculously funny, because when you hear things too literally all the time it sounds in Chinese (to you) as if “Foreign Country” is proper noun and people do think there literally are only two nations in the world.
In English we have “abroad” or “overseas” and those words don’t sound or look anything like Germany, the USA, France, etc. And we have to have an article in front of “foreign country” (a foreign country). In Chinese, many oft-used country names are two-syllable words all with the same last syllable: “~国” (“[~]” + “country”). For example:
- 德国 dé guó – Germany
- 法国 fă guó – France
- 美国 mĕi guó – USA
- 俄国 é guó – Russia
Pay attention to these last two:
- 中国 zhōng guó – China (literally: “central” + “country”)
- 外国 wài guó – abroad, overseas, a foreign country (literally: “outside” + “country”). “Foreigner” = “outside” + “country” + “person” (外国 + 人).
So whenever Chinese talk about going abroad, it literally sounds like they’re dividing the world into two different countries, even if they aren’t.
But sometimes… I wonder. This morning I was somewhere meeting a bunch of new people, and there was this kid, maybe 10(?), who was all about quizzing the foreigner while he had the rare chance.
Qingdao kid: “Where are you from?”
QK: [leans in, stares closely at my face] “But your eyes look like foreigner eyes.”
It took me a couple seconds to figure out what had happened. The kid had never heard of Canada, and “Canada” in Chinese isn’t “[~]” + “country” like all my examples above, it’s just a transliteration of the English: 加拿大 jiā ná dà. He heard a name for the first time, and it wasn’t obviously a country’s name, so he assumed it was somewhere in China.
Most of the adults present had a good laugh, though I’m not sure some of them weren’t as confused as the kid. We do occasionally bump into grown-ups who don’t know where Canada is or if it’s even a country.
And just to be fair, a week ago today we had a group lunch that included an American woman who ended up saying, “Shanxi? Where’s that? Is that in Qingdao?”