No, I'm not from Henan province

Different Mandarin dialects

When I tell Chinese people I'm from the Netherlands, which is pronounced as 'Hélán' (荷兰) in Mandarin, a surprising amount of people think I said 'nán' (河南), the Chinese province. While this might be due to my foreign accent, it's more likely because many native Chinese speakers don't differentiate between the 'l' and 'n' sounds. They especially do this in Henan, which makes the misunderstanding even more likely, and also in chuān (四川) province.

Most people notice soon enough that I really do not resemble a Chinese person, and figure out what I really said. But not everyone does. Last week, after a day of sports, I decided to go for a massage. A popular kind of massage in China is a blind man's massage, because blind people are supposed to have healing powers (not sure if anyone still believes that, but still). My masseur was indeed blind, and it took us half an hour to figure out that we had had the above misunderstanding.

There are other such differences. In Yúnnán (云南) and nán (湖南) provinces in the south of China, people don't differentiate between the 'f' and 'h' sound. And generally, southern Chinese people don't differentiate between the '-n' and '-ng' end sounds, and between the 's', 'z', 'c' and 'sh', 'zh', and 'ch' sounds. So, if you're going travelling for the October 1st holiday week, the receptionist at your hostel might ask you for your zhào instead of zhào (护照).


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Kevin writes columns for the GoEast Blog on studying Chinese, Chinese culture, and life as a foreign student. He has studied China and Chinese for over five years, first in his home country the Netherlands, then in Beijing, and now attends Fudan University's Chinese Society department.