All foreigners in China quickly become familiar with the phrase ting bu dong, but there is another way to use it.
The Chinese phrase “ting bu dong” constitutes a large part of the soundtrack that foreigners move through this country hearing. Just about wherever you go in China and speak your native tongue you are sure to hear people around you going “ting bu dong, ting bu dong.” When someone speaks to you in Chinese and you don’t understand them there is a good chance that they are going to cackle and exclaim “Ting bu dong!” to any Sino speaker within earshot. If you screw up your Mandarin pronunciation you are likewise going to be lambasted with the dreaded “ting bu dong.” Or, turning the tables, if a Chinese person begins talking to you and you have no idea what they are saying, the phrase you utter is, you guessed it, “ting bu dong.”
Ting bu dong literally means “I hear but don’t understand.” It’s the standard phrase that is used when to communicate that you don’t understand the language that is being spoken.
Like so, this single phrase can become the bane of many foreigners’ existence in the Middle Kingdom, as it truly follows us everywhere. For Chinese language students, this phrase is especially onerous, as it often means one thing: “fail.” But then we eventually realize how widespread and this simple phrase actually is and how it’s not just reserved for us foreigners: Chinese people use it when the can’t understand each other too.
Though foreigners in China attract this phrase like a wet market does flies, it’s also commonly used among Chinese people as well. China is one of the most linguistically diverse countries on the planet, and while pretty much all of the younger generation can speak Standard Mandarin, the use of local dialects — which are often unintelligible to non-speakers — are also used between people who grew up in the same place.
So over the millennia it has become almost a sport among Chinese people to try to understand the various dialects they hear in the streets. “Ting bu dong, ting bu dong” you can hear them saying over and over as they try to pick meaning out of some dialect they can’t fully understand. I can actually remember the first time I heard someone rattling off this phrase and realized they weren’t talking about me.
But there is another meaning of “ting bu dong” that I was on the receiving end of recently as I was standing in line to buy a train ticket in Zhangjiajie. The line was not long but there was this old lady who was trying to force her way ahead of me none the less. I fended off her affront, told her that I was first and to go to the back of the line. She listened. For a moment. When I got to the front of the line I told the ticket vendor where I wanted to go, and she began processing my ticket. But as she was in the middle of doing so the old lady tried to wedge herself in front of me again. It was ridiculous, as I was already being served and she was legitimately the next person in line. There was seriously no way that she could get her ticket any faster at this point. I began laughing in exasperation.
“What are you doing?” I asked her. “You are next in line. I am almost finished. Just wait five minutes.”
The old lady halted in her surge, looked me in the face, grinned from ear to ear, and said, “Ting bu dong.”
But I knew she understood, and upon telling her so she launched into a lecture about how I should behave as a foreign guest . . .
While ting bu dong means “I hear but don’t understand,” it can also be used to mean “I hear but don’t want to understand.”
In other words: shut up.