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“菜” – Know it and you’ll never go hungry. (Elementary)

Oct. 31, 2012

When you go out to eat in China, the word "菜(cài)" is ever-present. This one word is used to describe dishes, such as "家常菜(jiācháng cài) home-style dishes;" vegetables such as "白菜(báicài) bok choy," or simply "蔬菜 (shūcài) vegetables;" cuisines, such as "法国菜(Fǎguó cài) French cuisine;" and even the thing you order food off of "菜单(càidān) the menu."

With all of these uses, you can certainly see how essential the word "菜(cài)" is to food. But what else can this word do? Young people in China have picked up the word and enriched it, giving "菜(cài)" a whole new life. These days, "菜(cài)" isn't only something you eat.

Take a look at the following conversation and see the new way in which "菜(cài)" is used in modern China.


    Nǐ rènshi Lǐ Huá ma?
A: 你 认识   李 华   吗?


   Do you know Li Hua?

   Rènshi, tā shì wǒmen xuéxiào de xiàohuā.
B: 认识, 她  是   我们     学校    的   校花。


   I know her. She is the campus beauty in our school.

   Tā quèshí tǐng piàoliang de.
A: 她   确实   挺     漂亮    的。


   She is indeed extremely pretty.

    Zěnme? Nǐ xǐhuan tā?
B: 怎么?   你  喜欢   她?


    What's up? Are you interested in her?

    Méiyǒu, tā kě bú shì wǒ de cài.
A: 没有,   她 可 不 是  我  的  菜。


   No, she's not my type.

As you can see, "菜(cài)" in the colloquial sense means "type" or "the kind of person one's attracted to." Traditionally, the sentence above would be "她不是我喜欢的类型。(tā bú shì wǒ xǐhuan de lèixíng)." Using the word "菜(cài)" instead is very modern and colloquial. Saying "你不是我的菜(nǐ bú shì wǒ de cài) You're not my type" to someone will generally be regarded as humorous. However, this is not always the case. If not meant in a friendly or joking way, saying "你不是我的菜(nǐ bú shì wǒ de cài)" to someone who has obvious affection for you can be rude and hurtful to him/her.

But that's not everything. "菜(cài)" has other meanings in addition to "type.” Can you guess what it means from these two examples?

   Wǒ bù xiǎng hé tā yìqǐ wán yóuxì, tā hěn cài.
1. 我   不 想     和 他 一起 玩   游戏,他 很  菜。


   I don’t want to play with him, he is really bad at this game.

   Tā zài yùndòng fāngmiàn shì gè càiniǎo.
2. 她 在     运动      方面       是  个   菜鸟。


   She is not good at sports.

When used as an adverb, "菜(cài)" means to be bad at something. Similarly, the term "菜鸟(càiniǎo)" means someone who is a newbie, a novice, or inexperienced. [Literally, "鸟(niǎo)" means "bird."] As with "菜(cài)" from the first dialogue, "菜鸟(càiniǎo)" has a humorous, playful feeling. As a matter of fact, all of these terms are very young and modern expressions, so don't be surprised if some older people in China have never heard of them!

Drill Your Understanding:

1. What do Chinese youths call people without experience in a certain field?

A. 好 (hǎo)

B. 菜 (cài)

C. 菜鸟 (càiniǎo)

D. 老鸟 (lǎoniǎo)

2. In which of the following sentences does "菜" mean vegetables?

A. 我喜欢吃蔬菜。(Wǒ xǐhuan chī shūcài.)

B. 她不是我的菜。(Tā bú shì wǒ de cài.)

C. 他很菜。(Tā hěn cài.)

D. 她是个菜鸟。(Tā shì gè càiniǎo.)

3. How would you describe someone who is very bad at the piano?

A. 白菜 (báicài)

B. 蔬菜 (shūcài)

C. 菜鸟 (càiniǎo)

D. 鸟 (niǎo)

Answers: 1. C   2. A   3. C


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