Nationality and Geography

1.3 Nationality and Geography

In this lesson, you will learn to understand questions and answers about what country you are from and what part of the country.

We should mention that in Chinese, more often than not, these questions are really asking where you were from originally or even where your family was from originally. The proper answer for a first generation Chinese-American might well be that he is Chinese.

A life-long Beijing resident of Hong Kong parentage might well say that he is from Hong Kong. Later we will learn to refer specifically to current nationality and residence as well as to ethnic and regional origins.

First, let’s take up questions about nationality. Let’s listen.

Nǐ shi Měiguo rén ma?你是美国人吗 Are you an American?
Wǒ shi Měiguo rén.我是美国人 I’m an American.

Here’s the word for America, in the sense of the United States of America.

Měiguo美国 America

Měi was suggested phoenetically by the second syllable of America. Měi also has a complementary meaning, beautiful. Gúo means country. So Měiguo means the beautiful country. Notice that gúo takes the neutral tone in a country name.

Here is the word for person.

rén person

The word for an American combines America and person into America person Měiguo + rén.

Here’s another example:

Nǐ shi Zhōngguo rén ma?你是中国人吗 Are you Chinese?
Wǒ shi Zhōngguo rén.我是中国人 I’m Chinese.

Here’s the word for China.

Zhōngguo中国 China

Zhōng means middle. Zhōngguo is often translated as the middle kingdom.

Here’s the word for Chinese, literally China person.

Zhōngguo rén中国 China person

Let’s see if you can follow this new live exchange. Let’s listen.

To check up on your understanding of this exchange, here it is with the pause after each sentence and then the English. Translate to yourself during the pause.

Notice that we translate Měiguo rén the same way we translate Wǒ shi Měiguo rén, I’m am American even though the word does not appear. You’ll know from the context that the subject is I and you can hardly leave it out in English.

Here’s a new exchange. Let’s listen.

Wáng Xiānsheng, nǐ shi Yīngguo rén ma?王先生,你是英国人吗 Mr. Wang, are you English?
Wǒ bú shi Yīngguo rén.我不是英国人 I’m not English.

Here’s the word for England.

Yīngguo英国 England

and here’s the word for Englishman

Yīngguo rén英国人 Englishman

Rén is a noun, person or persons; so Měiguo rén is a noun phrase, literally America person. Sometimes, however, it is preferable or necessary to translate expressions of this sort as adjectives or prepositional phrases.

Tā shiMěiguo rén.
He isan American. (noun phrase)
Tā shiZhōngguo rén.
He is Chinese. (adjective)
Tā shiShāndōng rén.
He is from Shandong. (prepositional phrase)

Although Měiguo rén is translated here as an American, in other contexts it may be translated as the American, American, or the Americans. Later you will learn the various ways to indicate in Chinese whether a noun is definite or indefinite, singular or plural.

The syllable -gúo usually loses its tone in expressions like Měiguo rén. (Some speakers drop the tone when the word stands alone: Měiguo.)

It may have struck you that we’ve been asking yes/no questions without actually answering them with yes and no. This is because there is no single word for yes and no in Chinese. There are several ways to convey a yes/no response.

The closest Chinese equivalent to yes/no is an answer stripped down to its essentials. Often the verb alone for yes or the verb plus the negative for no.

Let’s listen to this example.

Nǐ shi Zhōngguo rén ma?你是中国人吗 Are you Chinese?
Bú shi.不是 No.
Nǐ shi Měiguo rén ma?你是美国人吗 Are you an American?
Shì. Yes, I am.

Literally, the answers are not am and am. A complete translation would be I am not and I am.

It is possible to reduce a no answer to (note the Falling tone), but polite usage requires that you follow it up with a more complete answer. Both the short answers shì and bú shi are commonly followed by complete answers.

Let’s listen.

Mǎ Xiǎojiě shi Měiguo rén ma?马小姐是美国人吗 Is Miss Ma an American?
Bú shi, tā bú shi Měiguo rén.不是,她不是美国人 No, she is not American.
Tā shi Zhōngguo rén ma?她是中国人 Is she Chinese?
Shì, tā shi Zhōngguo rén.是,她是中国人 Yes, she is Chinese.

The short yes answer shì is really the verb am of the longer, more complete answer. The short no answer bú shi is really the am not of the longer answer.

It is possible to reduce a no answer to (note the Falling tone), but polite usage requires that you follow it up with a more complete answer. Both the short answers shì and bú shi are commonly followed by complete answers.

Now, Professor Joel is going over his class list for next semester with the dean. He has heard that some of his students will be foreign students. Let’s listen to this exchange.

Listen and translate.

So far, we’ve only been asking yes/no questions about nationality. Now listen to a question asking which country someone is from.

Nǐ shi něiguo rén?你是哪国人 What is your nationality?
Wǒ shi Měiguo rén.我是美国人 I’m American.
Tā shi něiguo rén?他是哪国人 What is his nationality?
Tā shi Yīngguo rén.他是英国人 He is English.

The word for which is.

něi Which

Něi is the question word which. It is a bound word (a word which cannot stand alone) not a free word.

Note: the word něi is pronounced by many Chinese speakers. něi and are alternate pronuncations of the character 哪.

Notice that the syllable -guó, country, in the phrase něiguo rén may lose its Rising tone.

něiguo rén哪国人 which country person

Notice that the idiomatic translation what’s your nationality has to be rather far from the word for word translation you are which country person.

Here’s a new exchange. Listen and review afterwards.

American Měiguo rén and Which country person něiguo rén are confusingly alike. Sometimes you may not catch whether it was an ‘M’ for mother or ‘N’ for nephew. But notice that are you an american? is a yes/no question and so it has the yes/no question marker ma at the end, while what’s your nationality is not a yes/no question and so it doesn’t have ma at the end.

The interogative element in what’s your nationality is the word Něi which in něiguo rén which country person.

Let’s compare the two questions. Listen and decided which one it is.

Once you’ve established someones nationality, you may want to ask what part of the country he comes from. For example, what province or major city of China. Listen to this exchange.

Nǐ shi nǎrde rén?你是哪儿的人 Where are you from?
Wǒ shi Shānghǎi rén.我是上海人 I’m from Shanghai.
Shānghǎi rén上海人 Shanghai person

Where are you from is an idiomatic but rather free translation of the question Nǐ shi nǎrde rén?. The Chinese is actually something like You are a person of where?

The word for where is

nǎrde哪儿的 where

Be sure to associate the low tone with the word for where nǎr (哪儿) since the word for there is nàr (那儿) in the falling tone. This is one of the best illustrations of the importance of tones in Chinese. The possibilities for confusion between where and there are obvious.

The weak syllable de in nǎrde rén is a marker of the possesive. We translate it nǎrde rén as a person of where using of for the possesive marker de. But in the process we reverse the order. In Chinese, the word for where is first and the word for person last. So a closer although even less idiomatic translation is with the english possesive ending “[apostrophe] s” where’s person.

Here is somewhat more straightforward example of the possesive marker de. You need to know that Xiānsheng can mean husband as well as mister and sir. Let’s listen.

Tā shi Fāng Bǎolánde Xiānsheng.他释方宝兰的先生 He is Fang Baolan’s husband.

In the phrase Fāng Bǎolánde Xiānsheng Fang Baolan’s husband, it’s clear that the marker de is working like our possesive [apostrophe] s.

Here is a similar exchange.

Tā shi nǎrde rén?他是哪儿的人 Where is he from?
Tā shi Shāndōng rén.他是山东人 He’s from Shandong.

Shandong is one of the provinces in North China.

Listen to Shandong person.

Shāndōng rén山东人 Shandong person

If the question where are you from? is asked of an American, the expected answer is the name of a state. In Chinese, there is a phoenetic approximation of each American state.

Here’s California for example.

Jiālìfúníyǎ加利福尼亚 California

Several states, among them California, have abbreviated names consisting of the first syllable of the phoenetic version and the syllable zhōu or state.

Here’s the abbreviated name for California.

Jiāzhōu加州 California

Let’s listen to an example.

Nǐ shi nǎrde rén?你是哪儿的人 Where are you from?
Wǒ shi Jiāzhōu rén.我是加州人 I’m a Californian.

In this lesson, we have covered yes/no questions such as Are you an American?, What’s your nationality?, and Where are you from?. Let’s review.

Nǐ shi Měiguo rén ma?你是美国人 Are you an American?
Nǐ shi něiguo rén?你是哪国人 What’s your nationality?
Nǐ shi nǎrde rén?你是哪儿的人 Where are you from?

Pronunciation Practice