Ordering food in real Japanese part 2 (ramen)

The response to part 1 was very positive so as promised, here’s part 2 of ordering food in real Japanese. I imagine the first thing most people come up with when thinking about Japanese food is “sushi” but for me, I would definitely say it’s “ramen”. Ramen was definitely a big part of what got me interested in the Japanese culture very early on. Tampopo is still one of my favorite movies of all time. If you haven’t watched it yet, you’re seriously missing out.

tasty ramen


Ahh, the rich and complicated world of ramen. There’s so many things to cover but let’s just start with the basics. First of all, ramen is everywhere in Japan so finding it is like trying to find a Starbucks, not very difficult. However, Ikebukuro is perhaps one of the neighborhoods more famous for it’s ramen. There’s one I particularly liked whose name I can’t recall where you can crush your own fresh garlic (I love garlic).

Main Ramen Types

Before we get into all the crazy ingredients that can go into ramen, you should first become familiar with the major types of ramen. These types will be generally enough to get your ramen fix in most generic ramen shops. Of course, many restaurants try to come up with clever names but it’s usually just marketing for these basic types of ramen.

  • 醤油ラーメン (しょうゆラーメン) – The most common and generic type of ramen. Nothing much to comment on here except that it doesn’t really taste like soy-sauce at all. Sometimes 「醤油」 is written as 「正油」.
  • 塩ラーメン (しおラーメン) – A simple, refreshing salt-based flavor. (It works great for hangovers.)
  • 味噌ラーメン (みそラーメン) – As the name “miso ramen” implies, the soup’s flavor is based mainly off of miso. If you like miso, you’ll probably like miso-ramen.
  • 坦々麺 (タンタンメン) – A spicy soup with the taste of sesame seeds either black or white.
  • 豚骨ラーメン(とんこつラーメン) – Literally meaning “pork bone ramen”, the soup is flavored by boiling pork bones in water. This gives the soup a whiteish color. Personally my favorite type of ramen.
  • チャーシューメン – Most ramen come with a slice of pork flavored differently depending on the ramen called 「チャーシュー」. This ramen is for lovers of 「チャーシュー」 as it has several heaped on.
  • ねぎラーメン – For those who like 「ねぎ」 or green onion, this ramen is for you. It’s heaped with the stuff.
  • つけめん – In this variation, the noodles are dipped in the soup as you eat. I don’t really like it that much because it tends to get cold very quickly but I do enjoy a spicy one occasionally.

A typical ramen menu (among other things)

This is the main list but there are other types of ramen out there like 「カレーラーメン」, for example.

Noodle Types

In addition to the major types of ramen, sometimes the cook will ask you how hard you want your noodles. Personally, I prefer al dente as do many of the more hard-core ramen enthusiasts. You can even ask for soft but who likes soggy noodles? Another great trick for a really filling meal, if the option is available, is to save the soup and order an extra ball of noodles. This is called 「替え玉」(かえだま). It’s like an extra bowl of ramen often for as little as several hundred yen!

  1. めんの硬さ(めんのかたさ) – hardness of noodle
  2. 固めん(かためん) – hard noodle
  3. 普通(ふつう) – normal
  4. やわらかめ – on the soft side

Ramen Ingredients

Oh boy, this is going to be a doozy. A small number of ramen shops give you a list of ingredients, allowing you to choose each and every ingredient in your ramen (often charging you extra for each one). My wife usually picks miso, butter, and corn…. Ugh…

In Japanese, this is called 「具」(ぐ), which basically describes the solid stuff in any kind of soup or stew. There are a lot of ingredients so I’m only going to go over the major ones except for those we already look at in the major ramen types.

  1. のり – seaweed (you know the stuff)
  2. 煮玉子(にたまご) – boiled egg (my favorite), among other similar variations of egg including: 「半熟玉子」(はんじゅくたまご) and 「味玉子」(あじたまご)
  3. メンマ – bamboo shoots
  4. もやし – bean sprouts (pretty standard)
  5. ナルト – steamed fish-paste cake, you know the one with a pink swirl on it (impossible to find picture due to comic named after it)
  6. キクラゲ - some sort of mushroom, usually chopped up to look like black stringy things, pretty tasty

Also check out this the wikipedia ramen entry. There’s a lot more information about ramen as well, such as regional specialties. It’s all in Japanese but there’s also plenty of yummy pictures to feast your eyes on. Lovers of garlic and thick とんこつ soup like me will love 熊本ラーメン, though as I painfully learned first-hand, you probably don’t want to actually eat all the garlic chips.

So there you have it. Welcome to the wonderful world of ramen! This post just barely scratching the surface so you haven’t seen nothing yet!

Ordering food in real Japanese (part 1)

Phrases won't help you if you can't read the menu

If you ever learned how to order food in a classroom and/or textbook, let me assure you that is not how it’s done. Because Japanese employs a relative system of politeness, as a customer of the food establishment, you are automatically on top of the societal ladder regardless of your actual social status. Of course, that also means you’re at the very bottom when you meet with customers in your own job.

This typically means you need the following skills for ordering food in Japan.

  1. Very little speaking skill: You’re not obligated to say much. Just grunt and point at what you want (I write this just in case but this is a joke as grunting is generally frowned upon). Ordering food in Japan typically involves as much grammar as saying the name of the dish and maybe 「と」 if you are ordering multiple things (and a period if you insist).
  2. Awesome listening skills: You do however need to understand a bunch of honorific language spoken very, very quickly by somebody who has to say the same thing over and over again
  3. Awesome reading skills: Unless you want to eat only in fast food or family restaurants, most restaurants have no pictures and can look like some sort of ancient Chinese poem as far as you know unless you’ve beefed up learning the names of various dishes in Kanji.
windows 7 whopper

Contrary to popular belief, you can eat big in Japan (at least for a limited time)

Let me tell you, I thought I was pretty good at Japanese when I first arrived in Japan but when I went to buy something for the first time at a convenience store, I didn’t understand a lick of what was being said. How embarrassing!

So in this multi-part series, we will look at various types of foods and what they are called so that you can easily order them like a pro! In this part, we’ll look at some phrases that should help you navigate your way through convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

Conbini and Fast Food

You don’t really need to learn menu items in advance for convenience stores (コンビニ) or fast food restaurants. Obviously, you just pick up what you want in convenience stores and pictures are plentiful in fast food restaurants including mostly food you’re already familiar with such as the standard burgers and fries. However, the employees are going to ask you all sorts of stuff such as whether to take out or if you want to order the combo. And if you’re new to this, chances are highly likely that it will sound like a bunch of gibberish.

Just try to catch a few key words from these phrases because it’s going to be really fast. And of course, the universal rule of learning languages is that asking people to repeat themselves will not slow it down one iota.

Conbini expressions

  1. お箸おつけしますか?
    Would you like chopsticks?
  2. 袋にお入れしますか?
    Shall I put (your items) in a bag for you ?
  3. このままでよろしいですか?
    Is it ok just like this (without a bag)?
  4. 温めますか?
    Shall I heat up your food?

Fast food expressions

  1. こちらでお召しあがりですか?
    Is it for here?
  2. 店内でお召しあがりでしょうか?
    Is it for here?
  3. お持ち帰りですか?
    Is it for take out?
  4. お飲み物はいかがですか。
    How about a drink?

The lists are pretty short but the whole process is pretty standardized (and probably in a manual and everything). It should be enough to get you out the door with your food at the very least but feel free to add other expressions you’ve frequently heard that I missed in the comments.

Finally, if you’re bored see if you can identify the various おでん ingredients. I’m not going to bother going over them because as I recall, it’s all self-service at the convenience store.

oden ingredients

Putting on your clothes was never so hard!

We really take the verb, “to wear” for granted and you never realize how much until you try to say the same thing in Japanese. 「着る」(きる) is the verb meaning “to wear” in Japanese and is pretty simple to use as you can see by the examples below.

シャツを着る。- Wear shirt.
ジャケットを着ています。- Wearing jacket.

Awesome. So we’re done right?


If things were that simple, I wouldn’t be writing this. You will appreciate how flexible and awesome the English verb “to wear” is compared to 「着る」. It’s like Superman vs Steve Erkel (forget that one episode where Steve Erkel was Superman). We can wear hats, pants, gloves, scarves, shoes, accessories, just about anything that sticks to your body. Unfortunately, you cannot use 「着る」 with any of these items. The only thing you can use with 「着る」 are things that cover your upper-body such as shirts and jackets. Things that extend from your upper-body down past your waist such as overcoats and dresses also use this verb as well. So what about everything else? Well, I prepared a wonderful list for you to study. 「など」 means “etc”. Have fun!

Things you wear and their respective verbs

  1. 着る 【き・る】- to wear
    Clothes that cover your-upper body and more (シャツ、ブラウス、ジャケット、ドレスなど)
  2. 履く 【は・く】- to wear
    Clothes for your lower-body and feet (ずぼん、ジーンズ、靴下、ブーツ、靴など)
  3. 被る 【かぶ・る】 – to cover
    Items that go over such as hats (帽子など)
  4. かける – to hang
    Items that hang such as glasses and sunglasses (メガネ、サングラス)
  5. 巻く 【ま・く】 – to wrap
    Items that wrap around such as scarves (スカーフ、マフラーなど)
  6. 締める 【し・める】 – to tie
    Items that fasten such as neckties and belts (ネクタイ、ベルト、帯など)
  7. 着ける 【つけ・る】
    Items that attach such as wigs and earrings (かつら、イヤリング、ピアスなど)
  8. はめる – to insert
    Items you stick your finger into such as rings (指輪)
  9. する – to do
    A generic term for things like gloves, earrings, necklaces (手袋、イヤリング、ネックレス)

And don’t forget that these verbs are just for the actually act of donning the item. You must use the 「~ている」 progressive tense for when somebody is in the state of wearing them. I’m tired so I won’t even go into the words for taking things off. You can go with just 脱ぐ(ぬぐ) for clothing and 外す(はず・す) for accessories.

I have to confess that I’m not exactly a fashion guru so do feel free to add types of apparel I missed in the comments.

Non-existance is so unfair!

Trying to finish up some of my unfinished drafts again. God, this is the SECOND TIME stupid WP published my post without my permission! I hate this new interface!

It seems every language has different ideas of what it means to be something. Spanish has ser vs estar, Chinese has 是,在,有,and of course nothing. (It seems anything and everything in Chinese can be omitted and implied.) Japanese also has a distinction between properties of the thing itself (implied、だ、です) versus where it exists (ある、いる).

The verb 「ある」 can be used in some interesting ways to define existence in a way that’s not entirely obvious, hence this post.

If you define all the normal, common activities and occurrences that exist in the whole world, nay the whole universe, if you do something that doesn’t exist in this realm, it can mean that it’s grossly unfair.

A) 晩御飯は全部、あたし一人で作ったから、全部自分で食べちゃうよ。
– Because I made all the dinner by myself, I’m going to eat it all.

B) それはないよ。
– That’s not fair. (That doesn’t exist.)

A) じゃ、次はちょっと手伝ってみたらどうよ?!
– Then how about helping me next time?!

Here’s another example of using 「ない」 for what one expects to be an uncommon scenario.

A) 彼氏が今晩のデートで大事な話があるってよ。
– My boyfriend said he had something important to say on tonight’s date.

B) そう?
– Is that so?

A) もしかして、立派な婚約指輪を持ってプロポーズしたりして!
– Maybe he’ll bring a gorgeous engagement ring and propose.

A) う~ん、それはないんじゃない?
– Umm, I don’t think that’s likely.

You can even erase things that happen in the past and treat it like it never happened. Water under the bridge and all that.

A) 昼ごはんをおごってくれたら、昨日最後のチョコを許可なく食べたのをなかったことにしてあげるよ。
– If you buy me lunch, I’ll forget that you ate the last chocolate yesterday without my permission.

B) そのチョコは俺が買ったんだろうが!
– But I bought that chocolate!

Finally, my favorite ボケツッコミ combo.

A) 日本では、なぜかセーラー服やメード服など、制服がものすごくはやっていてね。街で散歩したら、制服を着ている女の子をよく見かけるわけよ。
– In Japan, for some reason uniforms like sailor uniforms and maid uniforms are really popular. If you walk around town, you’ll often see girls wearing uniforms.

B) あるある
– That happens, that happens.

A) 最近、おばさんまで、普通にメード服着ているし。
– Even grandmas are wearing maid uniforms normally.

B) あるある・・・ねーよ
– That happens, that happens… no it doesn’t!

As you can see, as is often the case, humor translates horribly. I hope to cover the different aspects of ボケ and ツッコミ and its importance in understanding Japanese humor but that’s another post that will probably sit in my draft folder for another couple years. Feel free to share your own corny jokes in the comments.

Peculiar properties of 「多い」 and 「少ない」

An interesting post I read recently about 「多い」 and 「少ない」 got me thinking (probably a bit too much). The post is also all in Japanese, so it’s good reading practice as well.

As Minako Okamoto points out, you can’t directly modify a noun with 「多い」 and 「少ない」 in the manner below.


I believe this is due to the idiosyncrasy of having adjectives that indicate multiple objects in a language that has no singular/plural distinction. (I have another post that explores this theme in depth that has been in my draft folder forever.) In addition, other words that indicates multiple objects such as 「少数」 and 「多数」 are almost always used as nouns despite the fact that they are descriptive and would normally be thought of as adjectives. (I have no idea whether they are officially classified as just nouns or as both nouns and na-adjectives.)

The easy way

There are many ways to get around this problem of not being able to directly modify the noun with adjectives indicating amounts. For instance, you can make the adjective a predicate or use adverbs such as 「たくさん」 and 「少し」 instead as Minako demonstrates.


The not-as-easy way

While this works fine for elementary Japanese, more complicated sentences might call for a direct noun modification. This is especially the case when the main focus of the sentence is something else and the fact that it’s numerous or few in number is extraneous information. In order to do this, all you have to do is modify as a noun using 「の」 instead of the traditional adjective-noun modification. For i-adjectives, you have to convert it to an adverb first by replacing 「い」 with 「く」.

(I completely made this example up so I have no idea if this is true and I would guess probably not.)

Oddly enough, I have never seen the opposite 「少なくの」. I guess every language has its quirks. You can however, use 「少数の」 instead.


KISS (Keep it simple, stupid!)

Some people might look down on what I called “elementary” earlier but in languages, simpler is always better. So in most cases and especially in conversational Japanese, you should just stick to the simpler method of using words like 「たくさん」 and 「少し」 without mucking around with what is more of a formal written style using 「多くの」, etc.

I should also note that there is a big difference between a direct noun modification and a subordinate clause modification as the two examples below show.

1) 東京に多いレストランがある。
2) レストランが多い東京が好きだ。

Unlike the first sentence where 「多い」 is directly modifying 「レストラン」, the second sentence is perfectly fine because 「多い」 is the predicate in the clause 「レストランが多い」 and is not directly modifying the noun 「東京」 by itself.

So in most cases, if you stick to the basics, there should be no problem at all. In fact, I have personally never noticed this peculiar problem until I consciously thought about it. In conclusion, remember that “brevity is the soul of wit”!

Can anybody think of any other adjectives that have similar issues?

I’m so not there right now

「それどころじゃない」 is one of those strange phrases whose meaning isn’t obvious by the words themselves. I guess those things are called idioms, a word that looks suspiciously similar to “idiot” as in “only an idiot wouldn’t know what it meant”. Well excuse me but we’re not all native speakers, you know.

In any case, I thought of this expression when I contemplated updating my blog. My life is rather hectic right now so updating my blog is the least of my concerns. So here I am, in the ultimate of ironies, updating my blog to talk about a phrase that perfectly expresses how I can’t update my blog.

You: 最近、ブログを更新してないね。
Me: それどころじゃないんだよ!

However, I will post all your submissions for September’s Blog Matsuri sometime near the end of this week. There’s still time to write and submit something to me! Just email me at taekim.japanese AT gmail.com

There is no such thing as 「熱い水」

If you read the title of this post and thought, “How can Japanese not have hot water?!” then this post is for you. Those of you who are familiar with this topic will know that Japan has hot water, of course. How can the bath and tea loving Japanese not have hot water. It’s just the complete opposite, in fact. Japanese people love hot water so much that they have a completely different word reserved just for water that’s hot. In fact, they even put an honorific 「お」 on top of it to make sure hot water realizes how awesome it is.

お湯 – Honorific hot water who blesses us with its holy gift of tasty tea and relaxing baths

Cold water just gets the shaft because it sucks and is just 「冷たい水」 if you want to be specific or just 「水」 as coldness is often implied (remember, hot water gets its own word).

The moral of this post is that you should never take anything for granted in a new language. That’s why, when I try to say something I’m unfamiliar with, I always try to find some real world examples and usages using various dictionaries and Google. There’s also Lang-8 to get your work checked by other people.

I’ve compiled a list of some word usages that might seem odd to us only because of the way we’re used to saying it in English. Can you think of other examples that have caught you unawares in the past?

  1. 電気をつける/消す – Attaching and erasing electricity to turn the lights and electronic devices on or off.
  2. 傘を差す – Pointing an umbrella to open it.
  3. シャワーを浴びる – Japanese uses a special verb for showering, also used for basking in the sun.
  4. 量が多い/少ない – Amount uses discrete measurement adjectives of numerous and few. I’ve often made the mistake of using 大きい and 小さい.
  5. 背が低い – Height is low NOT short.
  6. 教える – You don’t have to be a teacher to teach. You can use 「教える」 just for telling someone something they don’t know.
  7. うそ – Not always used for fibbing, you can say “lie!” to express disbelief as in “no way!”

In Soviet Russia, expressions use YOU

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for almost 3 years so I decided it’s high time to get it out the door finally.

「逆に」(ぎゃくに) is one of those expressions that is used all the time. Even if you decide to stop reading the rest of this post because you hate me for being so cool, you’re probably going to pick it up somewhere along your studies.

「逆」 by itself means, the “reverse” or “opposite”, and is a pretty useful word by itself as you can imagine. It is used as a noun as shown in the following (admittedly cheesy) dialogue.

田中) 明日、レポートをちゃんと提出するんだな?
みき) あっ、はい!
田中) あんまり仕事をサボるんじゃないよ。
みき) はい!わかりました!
Aさん) 田中さんは、なんでいつもみきちゃんに厳しいのかな?みきちゃんのことが気に入らないとか?
Bさん) その逆だと思います。

Loose translation:
Tanaka) Going to submit your report tomorrow, right?
Miki) Um, yes!
Tanaka) Don’t slack off too much.
Miki) Yes! Understood!
A-san) I wonder why Tanaka-san is always hard on Miki-chan? Maybe he doesn’t like her or something?
B-san) I think it’s that exact opposite.

It’s slang, it’s not supposed to make sense!

While that’s all fine and dandy, you wouldn’t think adding 「に」 and making it an adverb would be a very useful construction. I mean, how often do you say “oppositely” in English? But in Japanese slang, it doesn’t have to mean what it actually means!

みき) このレポートのせいで、今晩のデートはだめになっちゃったよ。
Aさん) 逆にいいんじゃない?彼氏と別れたいって言ってたでしょ?
みき) それはそうなんだけど、残業よりましよ。

Loose translation:
Miki) Thanks to this report, my date tonight is ruined.
A-san) Isn’t it oppositely good? You were saying you wanted to break up with your boyfriend, right?
Miki) That is true but it’s better than doing overtime.

As you can see from my crappy translation, 「逆に」 doesn’t have to be the direct opposite of anything in particular, really. It can be used to describe a result that might run counter to what you would normally expect. It can also be used to turn the tables around on someone (much like the title of this post).


I heard he got dumped by his girlfriend and when I tried to cheer him up, he oppositely got mad at me.

In fact, one very popular slang is 逆ギレ, which is when someone who is in the wrong turns around and gets angry at the person who confronted him or her.

Aさん) 遅いよ。もう30分も待ってたよ。
Bさん) 電車が止まってたから、しょうがないだろう!!
Aさん) ・・・(逆ギレかよ)

The 「日本語俗語辞書」, which I talked about in my last post has additional similar slang such as 逆ナン and 逆セクハラ but I’ll let you figure those out for yourselves. I’ve done enough damage already, I think.

Using 「とは」 to look up strange words

The edict dictionary is one of best online dictionaries available, better than any print E->J dictionaries I know of. It is also continuously being expanded from user submissions. Even in the rare instance that it doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you’re covered with the monster huge 大辞泉 and 大辞林 J->J dictionaries available for free at Yahoo!辞書. If you have the patience to work through the Japanese definition, you should be able to find a definition for every word in any print dictionary available to native speakers. However, with new words and slang being invented all the time, you might run into words that are not in any traditional dictionary. The good news is that a lot of Japanese people won’t be familiar with them either. Here’s a quick tip from me to easily find Japanese sites that explain and define words of this nature. In the process, I’ll also discuss a very special double particle.

The 「とは」 double particle

While you can guess the meaning of most double particles from the sum of it’s parts such as 「には」 (a target that’s also a topic), 「とは」 really has a meaning of its own. Simply put, it is a somewhat formal and concise way to define something. For example, try searching on Google for 「とは」 and you’ll get pages with titles like 「ITとは」 and 「WWWとは」. If you go to the site itself, it’ll give you a short definition of the relevant term.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. When I run into a term that’s not in the dictionary (which in my case is usually new expressions or slang too stupid to put in a real dictionary), I search the term in Google with 「とは」.

For example, when I was listening to 眞鍋かをり’s podcast titled あなたの周りのKYな人, I had forgotten what “KY” meant. Now, looking up a term like “KY” is usually very difficult because there isn’t a lick of Japanese in the “word” (and I use that term loosely). But all I had to do was attach 「とは」 and soon found this neat and in-depth definition in no time.

From http://zokugo-dict.com/09ke/ky.htm



In fact, thanks to this search, I found the 「日本語俗語辞書」 with all sorts of stupid slang that I’ll probably end up wishing I’d kept to myself. Please don’t send me an email along the lines of, “Hey, after reading your blog, I called my boss an AY for fun and he actually knew what it meant! He totally MMed on me and now I’m out of a job. What should I do?”

Anyway, in addition to the regular KY語 (God, it’s turning into its own language now?), this tactic was also useful for looking up Internet slang when I wrote about 電車男. For instance, the first search result for 「ROMとは」 turned up this nice little definition.

From http://d.hatena.ne.jp/keyword/ROM




So there you have it, a simple neat tip from me to you. I just wish I had better examples that won’t turn your cute little 「ます/です」 classroom Japanese to the dark side. Just don’t be using this stuff when you’re talking to me. You’ll totally get the hand and I mean that.


Figuring out Chinese: Finding out about “何”

I ran into this sentence while trying to read a little bit from a Chinese blog.


The sentence intrigued me because it was using 「何」, a character I’m sure most of you learning Japanese are already familiar with. I was curious to see how it was used in Chinese and decided to do some digging. In the process, I thought it would be a neat idea to outline some of the steps I take when trying to figure this kind of thing out for any language including Japanese.

Breaking down “何”

I first looked it up in Dict.CN and came up with the following.

1. why
2. which
3. what
4. carry
5. how

Wow, it looks like ”何” can mean just about every question word there is. How is it that I don’t see it more often? As usual, the English definitions are pretty much useless for clarifying anything. Unless I’m looking up very simple concepts or objects such as “friend” or “car”, I don’t even bother with the English definitions. Instead, the real value is in the example sentences. Here are a few samples.

1. 你这次考试的结果如
How did you do on your test?

2. 你跟你的新上司处得如
How are you doing with your new boss?

Ok, in this case, all the examples seem to be referring to another word “如何”. Looking at the sentence, it seems pretty clear that it means something like “how is”. My first thought is, how is that different from “怎么样”? But since this is a whole other direction, I decided to drop it and go back to finding more information about “何” by itself.

So this time, the example sentences from Dict.CN didn’t turn up much. Ah well, time to whip out my trusty Wordtank G90. The definition and example sentences given by the G90 were a lot more useful and seemed closer to what I was looking for.


That explanation was further broken up into 1.何、2.どこ、and 3.どうして with examples for each. Here are just a few samples.

1. 他为不来?

2. 你有高见

I interpreted these examples to mean that “何” is a general question word to increase the level of questioning similar to but probably not as strong as 「一体」 in Japanese.

Now, example sentences are great but I like to have a little more context. So I tried searching “何” in ChinesePod. It turned up a bunch of Media and Advanced lessons which I was too lazy to dig through, one Elementary lesson that had no mention of “何” at all (maybe a bug?), and finally a promising Upper Intermediate lesson called Drinking Ability. And sure enough the dialogue had the following line, referring to a manager out-drinking the whole company.

Way more than one table. It was the whole company!

Ok, so this usage didn’t seem to fit with my initial interpretation. In Chinese, because what constitutes a “word” is so flexible, you have to always be careful to consider whether you’re looking at a combination of characters or a set phrase. So I looked up “何止” in my Wordtank to make sure it wasn’t a set phrase. And sure enough:

【何止】 ・・・にとどまらない。ただ・・・だけではない。

So this was different from just “何” and my original interpretation was safe. By the way, Dict.CN returned no results for “何止” so you definitely want to get the best dictionary you can with the most comprehensive coverage. (My G90 C->J dictionary has about 150,000 entries.)

Breaking down “何为”

Now that I had a general idea of how “何” works, I took a closer look at “何为” from the original sentence that started this whole thing. I noticed an interesting, and as it turns out, deceptive similarity between my original sentence and one of the example sentences for “何” in my dictionary.


Since the first example came with a Japanese translation, I concluded that it was roughly equivalent to “他为什么不来?” but with a more questioning tone like, “Why in the world isn’t he coming?” But “为什么感觉?” doesn’t really make much sense by itself or in the context of the original text.

I guessed that the key was in the difference of order between “为何” and “何为”. My hunch was that the first, “为” is an abbreviation of “为什么” while the second “为” is an abbreviation of “为了”. The translation “What is the feeling for?” seems to fit the context of the original text better.

I searched Google and Baidu for “何为” to verify my hunch and found this page. It looks like “何为” can be a person’s name as well? I don’t really know. At this point, I’m was starting to get frustrated. Who said Chinese was easier than Japanese?? (Oh right, that was me.)

A little more digging up turned up an article titled 何为Hibernate. Alright, I know about Hibernate (it’s a Java O/R mapping framework) and the title “What is Hibernate for?” seems to make sense. I found another article 小泉三次参拜靖国神社意欲何为?. Again the title, “What is Koizumi’s intention for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine?” makes sense. I was too lazy to actually read the articles to verify so in the end I just went and asked a Chinese coworker to confirm my hunch. I seemed to be right though he did mention that the use of “何为” was very high-level and not common.

According to your comments, 何为 is another way to say “what”. so “何为感觉” means “What is feeling?” And “意欲何为” comes from Classical Chinese meaning “干什么”. I admit, I still don’t get it really but I’ll just leave it at that for now.


This is pretty much the approach I take when I run into anything new that can’t be easily learned from a dictionary and when I’m too lazy or impatient to just ask a native speaker. It gets a lot easier to go through all the example sentences and search results as you get better in the language. But the difficulty just means that you’re learning more since you know less.

Today, I learned some useful and perhaps not so useful stuff about “何” in Chinese. Spending so much time digging around for information really helps me remember it better than any flashcard and presents opportunities to learn about other stuff such as “如何”, “何止”, and “为何”. All this extra work will also ensure that I won’t forget that the reading for “何” is “hé” for a long time. While I still don’t completely understand all the nuances yet, I’ll be able to recognize it in the future until I can eventually get a feel for how and when to use it.

And hey, what do you know. I just ran into “何” again for today’s 每日学口语 (8月2日).

What’s the point of going to college?

In conclusion, I’d like to say that Chinese is a um… interesting… to put it politely. Sigh… Again, please feel free to make any corrections if I’m getting any of this wrong.