Spend any time around native Chinese speakers and you’re sure to encounter perhaps the most versatile utterance in linguistic existence.
With just two little syllables and some subtle variations in tone and facial expression, Mando and Canto speakers alike can convey the entire gamut of emotional experience.
Got a B on your latest calc quiz?
“Ai ya!” your mom might say with a shake of her head.
Unwittingly turned on an ice cold shower without realizing you were still standing in its wake?
“Ai ya!” you may blurt out, followed by a string of curse words.
Just checked your bank account and saw how much you spent on boba this past month?
“Ai ya!” you may exclaim in shock.
A distant family member just hit you with a surprise red envelope and you have to act like you don’t want it?
“Ai ya, uncle, that’s so unnecessary!” you may say while thinking about how you’re going to spend the money.
Frustration, anger, disappointment, affection, dismay, surprise, admiration, excitement… you name it. Whatever you’re feeling, ai ya’s got your back.
Ai ya is an expression of life. It is at once everything, and also nothing — which is why it is essentially impossible to translate. Here are some attempts, though:
But perhaps the best is this offering from the Chinese Women’s Association of San Diego, via Stuff Asian People Like:
Aiya is an all-purpose phrase that comes from deep in the soul. Aiya is both simple and complex: on one hand it is a couple of Chinese characters, on the other hand it can be a whole speech describing the state you are in. Aiya says, “I’m afraid”, “I’m in pain”, “I don’t believe it.” It is an exclamation of exuberance, a shout of hurt, a cry of fear, and the reflex of being startled, and the embrace of joy.
Ai ya, isn’t that sweet?
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