Don't ask if I'm good, and it's none of your business
Updated: 2012-12-18 11:34
By Lisa Carducci (China Daily)
I think two things when a foreigner in China greets me by saying: "Ni hao ma?".
First, I understand that person has learned Chinese in a textbook for foreigners before coming to China, rather than through observation and practice.
Second, I feel like telling him or her: "That's none of your business."
Well, that's a bit harsh, no?
Let me explain. If you have studied a little Chinese, you certainly know adding the particle "ma" to the end of a sentence turns it into a question. So, is the guy asking me if I'm good or not?
Well, in fact, "ni hao" literally means "you + good". But in this circumstance, the two words mean, "I wish you well", like when you say "goodnight" or "good afternoon".
I've been in contact with China for 27 years and living here for more than 21.
In real life, I've never heard Chinese say "ni hao ma?" when introduced to a person or as a greeting when they encounter an acquaintance on the street. When you run into your neighbor in the stairway, do you ask him whether his health, business and family are doing well?
"Ni hao ma?" is definitely a question - not a greeting.
To a friend, one will rather ask a simple question related to daily life as a greeting, such as "ni huilai le? (You're back?)", "chifan le ma? (Have you eaten?)" or "ni xiaban le (off duty?)" to a colleague who is leaving the workplace.
If one is talking to an old friend whom they haven't seen for a long time, the question "ni hao ma?" may follow the greeting, as one wants to know about the health, family and work of a person they hold dear.
I wonder why this fundamental mistake appeared and persists. I guess it's a translation of the American "How do you do?".
But this expression has become obsolete in the Western world.