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“Offensive to Chinese Language” – USC Controversy over Chinese Filler Word 那个 (Nèigè) Discussed on Weibo

Weibo users discuss how a professor at the University of Southern California was temporarily suspended for using Chinese filler word ‘nage.’

Manya Koetse

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In English it’s “uuh”, in Dutch it’s “ehm”, the French say “euh”, in Japan it’s “eto”, and in Mandarin Chinese it’s “nàge” (or “nèige” 那个). Every language has different filler words and hesitation markers that are used as a natural pause or stalling in speech.

The Chinese nàge recently received much more attention in western media than filler words usually get, when an American professor was suspended by the Marshall School of Business (University of Southern California) for saying “nàge” while teaching an online communications class. Students took offense because they thought the Chinese word sounded like the English n-word.

Greg Patton, a Professor of Clinical Business Communication, was teaching his online class via Zoom on August 20 when explaining the Chinese filler word nàge”/”nèige” (那个).

According to the Los Angeles Times, students complained that the words he used “sounded like a racial slur” and “harmed their mental health.”

Following the class, Patton’s students wrote a letter to the USC Marshall dean in which they stated they blamed the incident for no longer being able to focus on their studies, saying their professor “lacks the tact, racial awareness and empathy to lead and teach an audience as diverse as ours” and that it would be “unacceptable” to expect the students to sit through two more weeks of his class.

In an email to all MBA students on August 24, the USC Marshall dean apologized that the class led to “great pain and upset among students,” also stating that Patton “agreed to take a short-term pause” from teaching the course while another instructor took over.

 

These students are discriminating against the Chinese language

 

News of the incident blew over to Chinese social media this week, where it was discussed under hashtags such as “US Professor Suspended for Saying Chinese Word Nage” (#美国教授课上说中文词那个被停课#, 1.4 million views) and “US Professor Saying the Chinese Nage Suspended over Racism” (#美国大学教授说中文词那个因种族歧视被停课#, 7.5 million views).

On Weibo, netizens had little sympathy for the students feeling offended over the Chinese words. Many called them “ignorant” or “uncultured” for mistaking the Chinese words for a racial slur.

Although there are many Weibo users who think the controversy is laughable, there are also some who are shocked and surprised that this incident actually took place, and some taking offense over the controversy – seeing it as an insult to the Chinese language.

“These students are discriminating against the Chinese language,” several people wrote, calling it “offensive to Chinese”, with others saying: “So English is higher in rank than Chinese? The pronunciation is similar, but why is it the English [meaning] that is superior here?”

“I can’t believe this is real life,” another popular comment said.

This is not the first time for ‘nèige‘ to receive attention. A well-known skit by comedian Russell Peters also mentions how ‘nèige’ sounds like the n-word, and there are many Quora posts dedicated to the word.

On Weibo, various commenters mention the song “Sunshine, Rainbow, White Pony” by Da Zhang Wei (大张伟), aka Wowkie Zhang, of which the catchy chorus also repeats a Chinese nèige word (meaning “in that”) (see video below).

The song from 2018, that has over four million views on Youtube, also has thousands of comments underneath suggesting that the singer is singing the n-word.

“Da Zhang Wei would be killed if he would sing this in the US,” one Weibo commenter wrote.

Also read: “Fake” and “Hypocritical” – Western Anti-Racism Movements Criticized on Weibo

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jörg

    October 1, 2020 at 8:05 am

    When i was in China, i also wonder about this word, and when asking for the meaning, they said “there is no meaning”. That gives me another mystery, because the answer could mean “there is no meaning” or “it has a strong meaning we do not want to tell you”

    But now its solved.

    Thanks for this article.

    By the way, when chinease people around, i try to say “Auf Wiedersehen” and not “Tschüss” to avoid confusion 🙂

  2. Avatar

    Diandian Guo

    October 23, 2020 at 1:11 pm

    Maybe interesting to know: the official pronunciation of 那个 is nàge. This is also the pronunciation you would learn at school. However, in colloquial use, people tend to say nèige. The most common explanation is that nèige is 那&一 pronounced together.

  3. Avatar

    Diandian Guo

    October 23, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    And talking about “sounds-alikes”: if taken seriously, China probably have a valid cultural reason to ban Facebook. It sounds just like 非死不可(feisibuke), “one has no other choice but to die”. That could sound both unlucky and offensive for a mandarin speaker, I guess.

  4. Avatar

    Hello

    November 17, 2020 at 2:04 pm

    Nage, neige, means “that”, i.e. that one. It’s not a filler word!! A filler word would be “en”. Which is essentially the same sound in English, it is an affirmative sound.

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China and Covid19

‘Little Sheep People’: The Stigmatization of Covid Patients in China

Has testing negative or positive for Covid become a matter of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’?

Manya Koetse

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As many people face Covid-related discrimination in China after testing positive, social media users are now speaking out against popular (online) language that refers to Covid patients as ‘sheep,’ saying the way people talk about the virus is worsening existing stigmatization.

As Shanghai is entering its sixth week of citywide Covid lockdowns, there have been over 60,000 confirmed cases of Covid, and more than 52,000 people have recovered. Meanwhile, other cities in China, including Beijing and Zhengzhou, are also seeing Covid cases rise.

Everyone who tests positive for Covid in China currently needs to go to a centralized quarantine location to ‘recover,’ even if they have no symptoms. Covid-19 patients are not allowed to isolate at home due to the risk of spreading the virus or developing severe illness.

Patients who have been discharged from quarantine locations do not always receive a warm welcome upon returning back to their community. They need to test negative for Covid twice in a row before being discharged, but then often face discrimination from neighbors or family members who fear they might still carry the virus.

In online conversations, people who have tested positive for Covid are also referred to as “little positive people” (小阳人). But because the Chinese (Mandarin) word for ‘positive’ (yáng 阳) has the same pronunciation as the word for ‘sheep’ (yáng 羊), the meaning has come to shift, going from ‘little positive people’ to ‘little sheep persons’ (小羊人).

Gradually, Covid patients have also started to be labeled as “two-legged sheep” (liǎngjiǎoyáng 两脚羊), with male patients sometimes referred to as rams (gōngyáng 公羊) and female patients as ewes (mǔyáng 母羊). On social media, netizens also simply use the emoticon for a sheep (🐑) to refer to Covid-positive people.

 

“Stop calling Covid patients ‘little sheep’!”

 

A recent WeChat article by the health and medical platform Dxy.com describes the trend of referring to Covid patients as ‘little sheep’ stigmatizing and disrespectful, calling on people to stop labeling (recovered) Covid patients like this (DXY 2022).

The article suggests it is harmful to discriminate against Covid patients, comparing the language that is being used to describe Covid patients to how people affected by leprosy have suffered stigma and discrimination throughout history.

Using the hashtag “Stop Calling Covid Patients ‘Little Sheep [Positive] People'” (#别再叫新冠患者小阳人了#), Weibo users are discussing the stigmatization of people with Covid, with many agreeing that the language used to talk about Covid patients needs to change.

“This is no different than when other countries talked about the ‘Wuhan virus’ at the start of the pandemic,” one commenter wrote. “I always felt puzzled when people would use ‘sheep’ to talk about infected people, it’s so disrespectful,” another person replied. “People are people, with feelings and dignity, it’s just inhumane to refer to them as ‘two-legged sheep.'”

In April, another online article – including a conversation with a Shanghai Disease Control and Prevention doctor – also pointed out the problem of Chinese Covid patients being stigmatized. Popular science author Wang Jie (汪诘), who is based in Shanghai, wrote that the misunderstanding and panic about the virus are actually more frightening than Covid itself and that the disdain for Covid patients is most harmful to them.

The article was controversial and ended up being taken offline from Wechat, mainly because Wang Jie stressed that in the midst of China’s zero-Covid policy and the Shanghai outbreak, the ‘cure’ against the wave of Covid infections seemed to be worse than the virus itself. In doing so, Wang also addressed that the way Covid patients are being treated is often based on fear and panic rather than science.

All of the panic surrounding the virus has placed those who are positive or even recovered under scrutiny. China’s low infection rates have also made persons who have tested positive for Covid an anomaly to many, and there is the simple fear the virus might be transmitted to them or their loved ones – a risk that would affect their family and might even have consequences for the entire community they live in.

In early stages of a local outbreak, some of the people who were among the first to test positive were also referred to as ‘spreaders’ (放毒). In many cases, their contact tracing records were made public to inform residents, leading to the entire country knowing a person’s recent whereabouts (in one case, this exposed the tragic story of a Beijing migrant).

 

“When did testing positive become a social problem, and not just a medical one?”

 

Despite using different vocabulary, Chinese state media reports on how to deal with discharged patients perhaps also do not help in fighting the Covid stigma. In April, Shanghai Daily reminded people that recovered Covid-19 patients won’t infect others after returning home, but at the same time, it also suggested that recovered patients should live in well-ventilated rooms alone and avoid close contact and meals with their family members, while also reducing contact with other residents in the community (Yang 20220).

The official guidelines for recovered Covid patients in Shanghai require seven-day home health testing (check temperature twice a day, another nucleic acid test on the seventh day), and also prescribe people to stay isolated at home in a room by themselves and keeping a safe distance from others.

“I talked to my neighbor who came back from the quarantine hospital. He said he felt that people were avoiding him, that he was discriminated against and getting stared at. He worried about how this might mentally hurt his daughter, afraid that others wouldn’t play with her anymore,” one Weibo commenter named ‘Walexandraw’ shared.

Another social media user nicknamed ‘Love is Torture’ wrote that the community where they lived did not allow them back in after returning from the quarantine facility, forcing them to stay at their company’s dormitory instead: “So what use is the government proof of recovery? Is it nothing but a piece of paper? I have a home I can’t return to, is this the correct way to handle things?!”

Recently, a photo showing a drawing on the back of the hazmat suit of an anti-epidemic worker also triggered some controversy online. The drawing shows a black and a white figure, and underneath it says “grabbing sheep” (捉羊).

The picture is based on Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常), two Chinese folk religion deities – the Black and White Guard, sometimes represented as one single person – in charge of escorting spirits of the dead to the underworld. Persons doing good will meet the deity of fortune, while persons committing evil will meet the malevolent deity (Eng 2019).

Many people condemned the drawing for the message it conveyed of wrong versus right, with the ‘sheep’ testing positive for Covid going to ‘hell.’ Some mentioned that this kind of objectification of people could contribute to a Lucifer effect where anti-epidemic workers actually start to internalize ideas about the people they are testing in terms of ‘grabbing sheep’ and ‘good versus evil.’

“This person is objectifying patients by referring to them as ‘sheep’ and using the Heibai Wuchang drawing along with it, really making people uncomfortable,” one person wrote, with another Weibo user commenting:

“Since when do you have to feel inferior and guilty about it all being your own fault if you get the virus? When did testing positive become a social problem, and not just a medical one? Why not give positive patients a respectful name instead of a wrong one like ‘little sheep person’?”

Weibo blogger ‘Directube’ also posted another digital art work highlighting this idea of medical workers fighting against the evil of Covid.

“Is this 2022 or 1822?” one person wondered.

Despite all the online calls to change the popular language related to Covid (“language is a tool for thought and shapes what we think all the time), there are also many netizens who find the nicknames funny and innocent, and continue to call Covid patients ‘little sheep’ and other related terms.

“I just thought the term was cute,” one person writes, with another netizen complaining: “We have another little sheep in the community – we’re in lockdown again.”

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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References

DXY.com. 2022. “别再叫新冠患者「小阳人」了 [“Don’t Call Covid Patients Little Sheep]” (In Chinese). Dingxiang Yisheng 丁香医生 WeChat Account, May 6 https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/XbqZpi0PlP55RFe8RLV_1g [May 7 2022].

Eng, Khoo Boo. 2019. Understanding Chinese Culture in Relation to Tao. Singapore: Partridge Publishing.

Yang, Jian. 2022. “11,000 Patients Discharged after Recovery.” Shanghai Daily 23 (7496), April 11.

Wang Jie 汪诘. 2022. “比新冠病毒更可怕的,是对病毒的误解和恐慌 [What Is More Frightening Than the Novel Coronavirus Is the Misunderstanding and Panic about the Virus]” (In Chinese). Sohu.com, April 3 https://www.sohu.com/a/535112126_120083328 [May 7 2022].

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Insight

Chinese Term ‘Wuxin Gongzuo’: Can’t Focus on Work Due to Russia-Ukraine Crisis

Chinese netizens are so focused on the Russian attack on Ukraine that nobody can focus on work (wuxin gongzuo).

Manya Koetse

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There is one new word today capturing the mood on Chinese social media in light of the Russia-Ukraine crisis: wū xīn gōngzuò (乌心工作), meaning people are so concerned with what is happening in Ukraine, that they cannot focus on work.

The term that became a meme on Chinese social media today is a wordplay on the term wúxīn gōngzuò (无心工作), meaning not being in the mood to work.

With the Russian military operation in Ukraine dominating headlines all over the world, the Russian attack on Ukraine is also a big topic on Weibo and other Chinese platforms.

A Weibo topic page dedicated to the latest developments in Ukraine received over two billion views on Thursday (#关注俄乌局势最新进展#). News about explosions being heard across the Ukrainian capital of Kiev received over 140 million views (#乌克兰首都附近发生爆炸#).

During the afternoon of February 24th, news came out that Chinese students studying in Ukraine received an urgent message from the embassy in the morning to pack their belongings and to stay put until receiving more information (#在乌留学生收到大使馆紧急通知#).

Chinese state media also spread a message telling Chinese citizens in Ukraine to attach a Chinese national flag to their car in case they will drive long-distance. Otherwise, the embassy has advised people to stay inside and keep away from windows, and to stay in touch with local Chinese organizations.

“How quickly war can happen,” some Weibo commenters say, with many others using the hashtag #WuxinGongzuo (#乌心工作#, ‘Can’t Focus on Work due to the Ukrainian Situation’) writing: “It’s really true, we’re all following this news,” and: “I have been constantly focusing on this since morning, I can’t concentrate on work due to the Ukraine situation.”

Many Weibo commenters stress anti-war sentiments and say that they hope no civilians will be hurt, but there are also commenters who are using these developments to talk about Taiwan.

One meme making its rounds showed a pig called “Taiwan” watching another pig called “Ukraine” being slaughtered. One top comment said: “Pay attention little Taiwanese, Ukraine is demonstrating the speed of modern warfare. Sending troops in the morning, unifying by noon, in the afternoon we’re doing nucleic acid tests and IDs, in the evening watching the news together and the next day we’re raising the flag and singing the anthem!”

One Weibo commenter wrote: “I resolutely support the Russian military action! This is the evil result of Ukraine following the Yankees (美国佬). We should seize the opportunity to liberate Taiwan and to recover the Diaoyu Islands.”

But these sentiments are certainly not shared by everyone on Weibo: “Cherish the moment, cherish peace. The news apps keep sending me push notifications on the Russia-Ukraine situation, I just hope these two countries can quickly reach a peace agreement” [post by @麦克疯乐 includes image below].

By Manya Koetse and Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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