When East meets South West

In The Art of Travel, 3. Communicating, Buenos Aires by CY1 Comment

I find it pretty amazing how I found people of Chinese descent everywhere that I’ve been, even here in South America, the continent geographically furthest away from Asia. In Argentina, some minimarkets and supermarkets are called “chinos”, in the sense that they are operated by people of Chinese descent. They used to be called “mercado chinos” but true to the Latin American culture, they decided to shorten it for convenience. There are also autoservicios operated by Chinese people where you pay for your food by the pound. There’s even a small Chinatown in Argentina, called “Barrio Chino”.

Coming from Singapore, it was compulsory for me to learn Mandarin in school up until I was 16 years old. I wouldn’t say I speak it at a very high level, but it’s a language that I know. I also speak a little bit of Hokkien (also known as Fujian hua), very similar to Taiwanese, both being dialects of Mandarin, as its one of the only two languages that my grandparents understand (the other being Mandarin of course). Now that I’m learning Spanish, interactions with Chinese people here in South America involve using a mix of Mandarin, Hokkien and Spanish, which always leaves me very amused because these 3 languages are ones that I am only somewhat proficient in.

I remember one of my first experiences in a Chino, where I greeted the storekeeper with the customary “你好“ (hello). As it wasn’t a particularly busy moment in the Chino, the cashier ended up asking me where I’m from and what I’m doing in Argentina, and I responded in kind. That particular cashier’s family hailed from Fujian Province in China, where my great great grandparents are from, and so we started speaking in Hokkien. I remember at some point I wanted to say yes, and I my brain got jumbled up and I said “si”. She didn’t think anything of it and continued the conversation. At the end of the conversation she said “mil quinientos y cincuenta” and I paid up my pesos. When I left, I said “chau” and she replied with “慢走” (literally translated as walk slowly, but also a polite way to say goodbye to someone)

When I was reflecting on the interaction  I came to the revelation that the reason why I had a brain fart when I wanted to say yes was because of how similar the pronunciations for the word for “yes” is in the 3 languages. In Spanish its “si”, in Mandarin its pronounced as “Shi (是)” and in Fujian hua, which takes the same word but pronounces it differently its “si” with the mandarin 3rd tone. (A little background information in case you didn’t know: Chinese language have different tones, and the mandarin 3rd tone is when one pronounces the word with the tone going down and then going up again. For those in the know, the Fujian hua pronunciation sounds similar to the mandarin word “to wash”, 洗). Even now as I’m typing this out I have to pronounce the different words out loud in different sentences because in my head I’m still questioning if I’m pronouncing the right one.

It’s really interesting how languages that seem so different have certain similarities; in this case, a word that has the same meaning and are pronounced in almost identical ways.

Unfortunately, this similarity is not the case when referring to food. In Chinatown here the menus come in 2 languages: Mandarin and Spanish and as someone that is not quite familiar with the names of certain dishes in both Spanish and Mandarin, trying to figure out the dish required reading both the Spanish and Mandarin sides. That was the most work I’ve ever put in to get my Chinese food fix.

(Image: The entrance to Barrio Chino; Source: CY)


  1. CY, I have had a similar experience in my Italian class since coming to Florence to study abroad! I took Spanish throughout middle and high school and since Italian and Spanish are very similar, I sometimes will sneak a Spanish word into a sentence. I feel embarrassed after I have a “language fart,” mainly because I don’t want it to look like I am showing off the languages I know. So I totally understand your position!

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