Where On Earth Is Fulan?

Pronunciation is a key part of learning any language. Julie Axelsson speaks of her recent findings with dialectical pronunciation differences and what to do if a mishap takes place.

Talking about “Laojia” is one of those obligatory topics that you are bound to cover whenever making a new acquaintance in Dongguan, as indeed anywhere else China. “Laojia” translates literally to “old home” but what it actually means is the place where you, or possibly your ancestors, come from. For any self-respecting student of the Mandarin language it’s an easy and well-rehearsed dialogue that makes a great conversation starter and quickly gains you a few compliments, right? Well, not necessarily…

A while ago I was exchanging the usual pleasantries followed by some basic facts with a friendly new Chinese acquaintance and, from what I could gather, his laojia was in “Fulan.” Not being familiar with the place, I resorted to the normal procedure of quickly and discreetly consulting my mobile phone. Google helpfully informed me that there is a town in Guangxi by the name of Fulan so I thought it only appropriate to proceed chatting on about how I’ve always wanted to visit Guangxi. Judging by the puzzled look on my counterpart’s face however, it was obvious that something wasn’t quite right. He wouldn’t know about it, he said, as he’d never visited Guangxi himself. There must be more than one Fulan then, I quickly deduced, something not at all unusual in this big and densely inhabited country.

It gave me at least a proper introduction to some of the deviations from standard pronunciation that I might expect to encounter and deal with accordingly.

I could have dropped the topic then and there of course and moved on to other favorite subjects but, my curiosity awakened by then, I continued inquiring about the whereabouts of Fulan. The logical question about which province Fulan was located in however produced another puzzled look. “Fulan is the name of the province,” my new acquaintance said emphatically. “The one just north of here, you know.” Feeling somewhat confused as well as embarrassed by my apparent lack of basic knowledge about geography, I quickly picked up a map of China on my phone and asked him to show me. As he was pointing at the two familiar Chinese characters for “lake” (hu) and “south” (nan), it suddenly dawned on me that his laojia was in Hunan, the land of Mao and of the red-hot chili peppers… My exclamation “Ah, you mean Hunan!” produced yet another puzzled frown, “Well yes, that’s what I’ve been saying all along, haven’t I? Fulan.”

Needless to say, this particular exchange didn’t gain me any compliments, neither for my Chinese nor for my general knowledge about China. But it gave me at least a proper introduction to some of the deviations from standard pronunciation that I might expect to encounter and deal with accordingly. It turns out that the Hunanese are not the only Chinese speakers who tend to mix up their “h” sounds and their “f” sounds for example. By now I know to expect a person from Fujian referring to his or her laojia as “Hujian.” And if you’ve ever wondered why a blue mushroom is a sad thing according to Chinese social media, it has to do with the very cute way a sad young man from Guangxi pronounced the phrase “nan shou xiang ku” (“I’m so sad I want to cry”) so it sounded like “lan shou xiang gu” (“a blue mushroom”).

So, I am ever so slowly getting to grips with some of the dialectal pronunciation differences. And even if I haven’t quite figured out exactly where my regular driver’s laojia is located yet, at least I can tell you with some degree of certainty that when he describes it as a very “ruan” (“soft”) place, what he actually means is that it is very “yuan,” or far from here.