Laile, calls my wife: "coming". And every time, Eric Clapton's song "Leyla" starts playing in my head. Ni lei la?, meanwhile, means "You tired?", and off I go again, "Beggin' darling pleeeease, Leyla".
Gei mama, my wife says: "Give that to mother". A big fat gay mama!? Who? Where? Mama gei ni, "Mother'll give it to you", and there I am, thankful that mother's knee is the only part of her that is apparently gay.
When asking for soy sauce, you may get the reply, "mayo". No, they're not suggesting that you put mayonnaise on your mapo tofu: mei you means "there isn't any".
Mandarin distinguishes between a lot of sounds that English and Swedish treat as equivalent. Brother means the same when pronounced "bRRRotheRRR" as it does when pronounced "bwutha". This is particularly difficult with the tonality in Mandarin, where mere inflection will distinguish between for example whether weijing means "scarf" or "monosodium glutamate". But the spirants are tough as well: xiaoxin means "be careful", while Shaoxing is the name of a town famous for its rice wine.
It goes the other way around too, with Western languages observing strange distinctions between sounds. Some Chinese dialects, with millions of speakers, don't recognise the distinction between L and N. For someone from Jiangsu, neighbour and labour are just two ways of pronouncing the same word, and the difference is a mere quibble.
Luckily for me, my wife is a banana, a sleek machine running two cultural operating systems. She speaks better Swedish than I do, her pronunciation always crisp. I slur and drop syllables like an old drunk. To do that, you gotta be a native.
[More blog entries about language, Chinese, Mandarin, English; språk, kinesiska, engelska.]