Some of my favorite Cantonese words and sayings as I think of them


睇唔起 (tai2 m4 hei2) - Look down up someone. I think this one is funny because the words would actually translate to something like "not able to conceive of you as higher," as if being so low were partially the fault of the recipient. The viewer is trying their best to lift you.


頂住 (ding2 zyu6) - Hold up, withstand. You can use it to describe a truly difficult situation requiring persistence. It's also commonly used in less serious contexts where you need something to "tide you over," like a snack to 頂住 until dinner. I think I've only ever used it the latter way, because I'd switch to English to communicate a real struggle. Cantonese is reserved for vacations and the memory palace.


發爛渣 (faat3 laan6 zaa2) - Throw a tantrum. Hilarious assonance here. I can remember a few times when my mom used this to refer to both her and my younger self. My turn, then your turn, we're all being pissy together.

Another time in Binghamton, we were making brownies and I somehow flooded our small kitchen with an inch of water. Instead of yelling, she made a thermos of tea and drove us to the track at SUNY, where we walked separately until it got dark. We went home and mopped everything up. The opposite of 發爛渣.

冷靜 (laang5 zing6) - Calm down!


擦鞋 (caat3 haai4) - To polish shoes, or to kiss up to someone.


唔三唔四 (m4 saam1 m4 sei3) - Translates to not three not four. It means willy-nilly, neither here nor there. Can be used to describe a person who is acting nonsensical.


會所 (wui6 so2) - Club, broadly. When I was younger, my cousins and I would play at the rec center attached to my Aunt Fiona's apartment complex. There was a bowling alley, bright blue-bottomed pool, and a cafe that served red bean popsicles and lemon water (凍檸水). Lemon water in Hong Kong is a glass of ice water with a long squeeze of honey at the bottom and stacked discs of citrus that you mash down with a spoon. I don't know why.

I always looked forward to the drink after a swim. The pool was out on the terrace, stories from the street, and piped jazz from speakers under water. I'd hold my breath and listen. To me, 會所 sounds phonetically similar to "reservoir" or at least has my mouth making the same shapes. I associate it with rehydration, cyan tiles, something sweet.


牛油果 (ngau4 jau4 gwo2) - Avocado, translates to butter-fruit :3

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