When I came to China for the first time in 2008, I knew nothing about nothing. (Well, that is, unless you count shrimp fried rice and lemon-pepper chicken from Jin Jin’s— both of which are all but impossible to find here, by the way—and Rush Hour). I knew nothing of the culture or the music or the architecture or anything, really. What I knew the least about, though, was the language.
Even though I was in China, I had very little interaction with Chinese people and I was only there for two weeks. So, I, along with the bulk of my travel mates, there was no real need to ever learn Chinese. This worked for the first visit, but after that trip, I was so in love with Chinese culture that I knew I’d be back. In preparation, I took some basic Chinese classes at the University of South Carolina in which I perfected the most important words and phrases for a foreigner in China: “I don’t know (wo bu zhi dao),” ‘hello (ni hao),’ ‘goodbye (zai jian),” and “ok (keyi).” (I attempted learning how to say America in Chinese, but it kept coming out as Spanish. I quickly gave up.) With that I knew I was set! That is, until I said “I don’t know” to a Beijing taxi driver, and attempted to converse with me. “That’s the last time I’ll do that,” I told myself.
By my third summer trip to China, this time to the southern city of Nanning, my ear had grown accustomed to the language; the sounds that were once harsh and foreign seemed soothing and familiar. I still didn’t understand most of what the people were saying, but what I was hearing was, at least, familiar. I began to ignorantly eavesdrop on conversations, listening for words/phrase I knew. The problem with this method was that I didn’t know Chinese, so the only language I could compare it to was my native language—English. As I listened to the sounds, I kept hearing a word that sounded a lot like nigga.
As I mentioned before, I am from the South in America, so that word connotes a lot of negativity. My knee-jerk reaction was to say something to the people using this word so freely. The only problem was they wouldn’t understand a word I was saying. I knew they needed to stop using this word, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them. Then I had a revelation: “I’m in China. It may be possible that these offensive sounds could means something different to the Chinese people in their language.” I decided to investigate. What I discovered was laughable at least and eye-opening at most.
I decided against asking any of my White teammates what the word meant, and decided to ask one of my Chinese students instead. The conversation went something like this:
“Hey,” I began apprehensively. “I have a question about Chinese.”
“You want to learn Chinese?” My student asked excitedly. “I can teach you!”
“Oh…uh…that would be nice,” I began, attempting to figure out a way to be culturally sensitive. “I want to start with one specific word, though.”
“Ok. We can start with ‘Ni hao,’” she said enthusiastically.
“Yes, “ I laughed. “That’s a good place to start, but I really want to know about this word that sounds like an English word I know.”
“Ok. What word?”
“Nigga.” I blurted out.
“Nigga…Nigga…” She repeated it a couple times to my annoyance. “Nigga…it means ‘that one.’” She said confidently.
“Huh, really?” I was completely confused. “Well, why do I hear people using it so often. I mean, I hear it ALL the time.”
“That’s good,” she said smiling. “It can help you know Chinese.”
“It means ‘that one,’ but we Chinese [people] use it as ‘uh’ or something like that.”
“Huh? You mean you use it when you can’t think of anything else to say? Like a filler word?”
“Yes!” She nearly shouted.
“Wow! I wish it had different sounds,” I said.
“Why?” She asked with a confused look on her face.
“It just mean something different in English,” I said somewhat dismissively.
“What does it mean?”
“It a bad word that unintelligent people use/ used to use to address African Americans to make them feel less important,” I attempted to explain in simple terms.
“Oh, I am sorry,” she began. “I will not use this word.”
“It’s okay,” I said laughing. “This is a word in Chinese, so it’s fine. Just be careful to not use it in English.” I said sternly before making joke to lighten the mood.
Explanation: The standard pronunciation for the word I heard as “nigga” is actually supposed to sound more like nuh-guh (phonetic spelling). However, this pronucnication is more common in the Northeast. Another common pronunciation is nay-guh; however, the pronunciation in the southern city I was in sounded like nigga.