hei/hey there!

When I was living in China, I met a ton of non-native English speakers. Not only Chinese people, but also a lot of European foreigners, many of whom had a very tenuous grasp of the English language. Some of their English was near-native. Some of their English downright sucked. But even if their speech was flawless, spelling and written grammar often proved massive hurdles.

I’m not disparaging them in the least. Goodness knows my Mandarin is merely decent and my French is just a step above abysmal. To even know (or attempt) a second language is a massive feat—one that many, many Americans don’t even bother trying. So when I got a letter from A, a French woman who has lived in China for a really long time, I couldn’t help but smile at her opening: Hei.

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I’m guessing she was going for “Hey.” The funny thing is that in China, “Hei” that would actually be somewhat correct. “Hey” is a loanword that many young people use, and when written in Chinese, the character 嘿 (hēi) is used. The character is basically just a sound word/interjection that places a 口 (mouth symbol) next to 黑 (word for the color black), visually representing the sound (but not meaning) of the word for black. And when written in pinyin (romanized), it’s h-e-i.

So basically, it’s kinda like playing telephone. From English to Chinese to Chinese-tinged Franglais, hey becomes 嘿 which becomes hei.

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