Selected Entries from the Glossary of Terms

Blockbuster Video crossed with a love hotel. Photo by Ian Kuo.
Blockbuster Video crossed with a love hotel. Photo by Ian Kuo.


laoshi [la-ow-shuh]  老师  It’s supposed to be a term of respect for teacher but when used in reference to a foreigner, means basically, foreigner. “Are you a teacher?” is the first question 90% of Chinese people will ask you. They all assume that you’re one of two things: a teacher or a tourist. Today, to-day, in the elevator of the building in which I have lived for three years, I swear to God, this ABC[1] cocksucker stinking it up with his Euphoria for Men by Calvin Klein, turned to me and said simply but distinctively, “Teacher?”

I replied, “Writer.”

He said, “Oh oh oh yeah. Of course, you’re the…”

And I cut him off, “The foreigner who lives on the fourth floor.”

He stood obviously corrected. “What kind of writer?”

“Words. Mostly words.”

The door opened at the 4th floor and he said, “It was great to meet you,” and I didn’t even look over my shoulder.

“Was it?”

Either way, you’re a foreigner. Find another line of work or get used to saying wo dang laoshi (I am a teacher). Contrary to the entrepreneurial West, there are limited employment opportunities for foreigners in Asia. Outside of Hong Kong, there are few places where foreigners can own property, get residency status or run businesses without the sponsorship of a mainland citizen, e.g. marry a local. Far and away the number one job for Westerners (read: asspats) is teaching English.

laowai [la-ow-why]   老外  Foreigner. You’re going to hear this so many times you’ll start referring to yourself in the third-person as the laowai. Also very common is waiguoren [why-gwo-ren] 外国人. There is heated debate between foreigners as to which term is acceptable. Some people think laowai is offensive, especially when shouted at you by a pack of teenage hoodlums in a crowded shopping mall, which happens with enough frequency that you hardly even notice it. Neither term is offensive to yours truly however it is obvious when laowai is being used in a derogatory way. Whenever I hear it said in reference to me I think, “That’s right, motherfucker. Lock up your daughters/Lock up your wife/Lock up your back door/And run for your life.”[2]

lian [lee-en] The Chinese and English concepts of “face” are similar but differ in several semantic areas. The main difference is the English “face” doesn’t recognize a distinction between Chinese lian (moral character) and mianzi (social standing). In English you can lose face, save face, or gain face. By expanding “lose face” into “save face,” English developed independently from Chinese, which has many “lose face” collocations, but none literally meaning “save face.” However, for a person to maintain face is important in Chinese social relations because face = power and influence, which in turn affects the social standing. A loss of lian would result in a loss of trust within a social network, while a loss of mianzi would likely result in a loss of authority. Since Chinese lian is ethically absolute while mianzi is measured in a social context, losing the former is more significant. Losing lian is getting pinched at a love hotel with your transgender mistress. Losing mianzi is having to sell your condo because you’ve been taking a big hit at the casinos in Macau. The fact that Chinese has a lexical definition for losing face but not gaining face indicates that moral character has more weight than social standing. The moral of the story in other words: whatever it is you’re doing, don’t get caught.

Sourced in part from

lukou [loo-ko]  路口  Intersection. The most dangerous place in all of Asia is the typical city street. Some places are more deadly than others, for example Vietnam, where chaos is the order of the day. In Taiwan, if you’re not watching where you’re going, rest assured the Taiwanese aren’t either. As a pedestrian in traffic, you do not have the right of way. Traffic control signals are considered optional. And there’s no safety on the sidewalk, which is considered merely an extension of the road. Paved surfaces are shared by all vehicles equally. Meanwhile, when you’re not dodging cyclists and delivery vans, you’re engaged in a constant game of chicken with your fellow pedestrians, who all assume they have the non-existent right of way. Making your way across an airport terminal takes the determination of a rugby player.


mmm  [mmm, not enunciated but forced or vibrated from the throat]  呣   I understand, I agree, or I’m following you. An interjection, exclamation, or a grunt expressing an affirmative or a question. Exclamative particles in Mandarin are used as a method of representing aspects of human speech which may not be based entirely on meaning and definition. For instance, many native speakers will add an ah to the end of a declarative sentence, e.g. dui-ah[3]  meaning, “Yeah, you’re so right” (see also: ma). The Mandarin mmm is equivalent to the English “uh-huh” or “mmm-hmm” and can be used freely when answering questions, especially when you can’t remember if you should use yao or you.

MTV  [em-tee-vee]  影院 (aka U2, i.e. “you two”) has absolutely nothing to do with the cable video program your dad used to watch and even less in common with that Irish rock band your grandma still listens to.

MTVs  are sometimes vaguely referred to as yingyuan, but like KTV, they just call it MTV.  Here’s a bit of logical assumption: most young adults in Asia live with their parents until they get married. Some even have curfews—particularly females—well into their 20s (or 30s, which is not uncommon). In many cases, once a Taiwanese couple marries, they live with one set of in-laws, occupying one floor of the family four-flat. In other words, there is very little personal privacy for the young folks.

Consenting adults in a densely populated city need a place to fuck, and S.E. Asia has no shortage of rent-a-rooms (aka love hotels) with an implicit “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. MTVs are essentially Blockbuster Video stores crossed with a love hotel. Similar to karaoke joints except you rent the room and a movie.  We don’t really have a heterosexual equivalent in the U.S.  It’s on par with a gay bathhouse except for overhead fluorescent lighting in the lobby, no furtive cruising, and the staff is genuinely interested in making you comfortable. MTV/U2s are set up similar to KTVs except instead of karaoke box, the U2 has 8’ x 10’ rooms with big video screens. You get your own private room with a couch and some pillows  and you can control everything about the environment except the movie.  Once you close the door, the movie starts playing. You can’t pause or rewind or change the subtitles.

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Included in the rental price ($15US for two people) is your choice of non-alcoholic beverages or food, which an attendant will bring within the first five minutes of the movie. You can order “real food” (Chinese, unfortunately) as opposed to the typical movie theater fare like Snowcaps, Goobers, and stale buttered popcorn, but they’ll give you that candy shit if you want it. At most joints you’re highly encouraged to order the set meal or package deal, but they’ll also run out to McDonald’s and get you a fucking super-sized Big Mac meal if that’s what you want. Of course, that costs a bit more but so does a blowjob in Vegas as opposed to Bangkok. The point is, for the same price as seeing a newly released movie in a giant cineplex, in the MTV you can watch the same movie a month later and get down at the same time, which you can’t do at Loews Century Plaza 6 Cinemas. When the movie is over, you get dressed and get the fuck out of there.

ma  [mah]  吗 Horse, mother, scold, hemp, mark, leprosy, ant, dragonfly, grasshopper, and toad—depending upon the tone and context, of course. If that weren’t enough, it’s also the measure word for “yard” and a sentence-ending particle used in forming or indicating questions. The most common way to hear it is in the latter, i.e. ni hao ma? (Hello, how are you?) and ni chi fanle ma? (Have you eaten yet?), both of which are interchangeable when greeting friends.

maidanglou [my-don-low]  麥當勞  McDonald’s. The Golden Arches. Your first couple of weeks in Asia are most likely going to be exciting and full of surprises. During this time, eating comes in somewhere around third on your list of survival priorities. On arrival, accommodation is paramount. You can’t do anything without a home base. Make sure that hotel is cool. Don’t stay in a shit hotel. Trust me. Check the towels. Make sure they are fluffy and soft and don’t feel like sandpaper. Moving on, your second priority will be getting your body acclimated to the time change and your psyche to the culture shock. Alcohol consumption might be on the agenda. Next, there may be a litany of other minor issues to settle. Getting a SIM card for your cell phone. Making sure your ATM card works in the local machines. Is your brand of cigarettes available? Finally, we come to eating. Once you’ve acclimated to your surroundings, the pangs of hunger will let themselves be felt. Fortunately, the Golden Arches are universal. Fear not, Ronald McDonald has your back. Maidanglow shushu 麥當勞叔叔 (lit. Uncle McDonald) is quite literally everywhere. You will feel a tiny bump of relief when you see the Arches, I guarantee it. You can get your two cheeseburgers. The Big Mac is called juwuba [jew-woo-ba] 巨无霸, and usually, Asian McD’s are 24/7, which comes in real handy when you wake up ravenous at 4:00 a.m. local time. They all have placemat-sized laminated English menus stashed under the front counter that the cashiers will whip out as soon as they see you coming through the doors.

[1]               American-Born Chinese.

[2]               Lyrics from “TNT” by AC/DC.

[3]               This is characteristic of and more prevalent in the Taiwanese dialect.

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