I Work in a Trash Dump

One of the main challenges to learning Chinese is the homonym minefield you have to navigate for listening comprehension (mostly due to the tones). If you’re in a real biāozhǔn 标准 Mandarin area, there are 2 kinds of problems that can trip up your listening comprehension, and I’m assuming you already know all the vocabulary involved (non-standard areas have a whole bunch of other challenges to listening comprehension):

1. Minimal pairs (only one difference)

The other day I was invited to a colleague’s house to eat some home-made, zhèngzōng 正宗 Chinese food (as if the rest of the food available at Chinese restaurants here is all jiǎde 假的!). While I was in the kitchen not helping, the chef asked if I had a better apple.

Me: Apple? Why do you need apples?

Chef: No! Not an apple. A flat-bottomed pan silly!

Check out the minimal pair:

  • píngguǒ 苹果 = apple
  • píngguō 平锅 = flat-bottomed pan [flat pan]

I was tricked because “apple” is a much more common word and when listening to the chef’s rapid-fire speech, I didn’t have time to analyze all the tones. It just sounded like “apple” to me. Also, I’d never heard “flat” and “pan” put together like that before (although it makes perfect sense).

2. Actual homonyms (sound exactly the same)

The list of single-syllable homonyms is endless. Here’s one example:

Soldier 1: I don’t want another arrow stupid! Give me a sword!

Soldier 2: What do you mean you don’t want another sword? Let’s use measure words, maybe that will help. Or better yet, write the hanzi.

Single-syllable homonym:

  • jiàn = arrow
  • jiàn = sword

Chinese gets away with way more of those than any other language I’ve ever encountered (Spanish) because they’ve always got that hanzi safety net to fall back on. Also, I’m almost certain that measure words arose (at least partially) to help people differentiate between homonyms (the measure word for arrow is “zhī” and the measure word for sword is “bǎ” ).

But occasionally you’ll get snookered by a multi-syllable homonym. That’s when it really gets fun:

  • shōufèizhàn 收费站 = tollbooth [receive fee station]
  • shōufèizhàn 收废站 = trash dump [receive waste station]

It makes you feel sorry for the poor guy who explained to his girlfriend that he works in a tollbooth, but when she told her parents they assumed it was a trash dump. How homonyms killed a blossoming romance.


I can just imagine some gang leader giving directions, “…and then, turn right at the tollbooth.” Later that night, his minions walk in with some ragamuffin in handcuffs.

Boss: What’s this?!

Minion: You told us to go kidnap at the trash dump. This was the only kid there.

Anyone else know any multi-syllable homonyms or minimal pears…oops…I mean pairs? Do share.

[Update: 2009-09-17

The following comic strip was based on this post. Pinyin below. Click image to see original site.]

2009-08-17 Arrow or Sword.jpg

A: kuài​! gěi​ wǒ​ jiàn​! mǎ​ shàng​! 快给我剑!
B: shì jiàn​ hái ​shì​ jiàn​? 是剑还是箭?

11 Replies to “I Work in a Trash Dump”

  1. fodder for our website. where do you get these ideas?? a lot of the toll booths in the US are like trash dumps… Say that ten times fast!

    Great work.

    any updates on your book?

    Do you run your posts through an editor first before posting?

  2. magnus,

    I get the ideas from the shocking number of mistakes I make in Chinese and some of the mistakes my students make in English.

    As for the editor: No, I don’t run these past anyone before posting. Why? Did you find a (new) typo?

    I would be most honored to see a cartoon based off some humble words I set to an e-page. Please let me know if/when that happens!

  3. Thanks for sharing the interesting observations. For 收废站, to make it clear, it means recycling shops (or centers). You can sell scrap metals, plastics and waste paper etc. to them.

  4. ‘Being pregnant(huai2yun4)could easily be mistaken for bad luck(huai4yun4)while hitting the wrong tone can turn a poem (yi1shou2shi1)into a handful of sh*t(yi1shou3shi3).’ – From the excellent Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook first edition, no affiliation.

  5. 从前有一只老虎yīzhī lǎohǔ(不是一纸老虎zhǐlǎohǔ)住在海口hǎikǒu市,有一天他感冒发烧fāshāo(不是发骚fāsāo),晕乎乎地夸下海口hǎikǒu说,全世界只有他不用下地道dìdào也能做出地道dìdao的意大利面。

    Cóngqián yǒu yīzhī lǎohǔ (búshì yí zhǐlǎohǔ) zhùzài hǎikǒushìyǒuyītiān tā gǎnmào fāshāo (búshì fāsāo), yūnhūhūdi kuāxiàhǎikǒushuō, quánshìjiè zhǐyǒutā bùyòng xià dìdào yěnéng zuòchu dìdao de pasta.

  6. My favorite is from poem 297 () of the 詩經. It has the characters , meaning a white horse with a black mane, and , meaning a black horse with a white mane. Both are pronounced luo, fourth tone.

  7. How do Chinese solve this problem? They probably also make some mistakes. Or do they have intiution formed through years of living in Chinese-speaking surroundings to know which meaning is the one that the other party wants to convey?

  8. Pingback: MandMX.com » Archive » Arrow Or Sword

  9. Many non-Chinese speakers seem to worry whether or not Chinese people can well express themselves in Chinese.

    In China, there are a lot of “Chinese” who worry whether foreigners can express themselves well or not.

    When those Chinese understand that they are also “foreigners” in the eyes of foreigners, and vice versa, the worry becomes stupid.

    In the song of Colour Of The Wind by Vanessa Williams, there is a lyric: if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you learn things you never knew, you never knew.

    The nature draws no lines on the map of the world while we hunmans, all supposedly to be his or her descendants, do. There are no walls among the hearts of children throughout the world but their parents or grandparents try to build as many as possible into theirs before they grow up.

    We begin to estrange ourselves from others the moment we begin to be aware of the three words: YOU, HE AND I; Chinese, Japanese, American, British, Arabian etc.

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