To most cultures, languages offer thousands upon thousands of ways to say just about anything. To the Chinese, whether by cultural design or sheer ease of pronunciation, one one-syllable phrase has encapsulated the essences of fear, empathy, despair, pain, and surprise all at the same time.
“Ah-Ya!” (å•Šå‘€), which is literally the combination of two exclamatory particles in Chinese (“ah” and “ya”), is that very phrase. The reason that such a word can be so expressive is the many manifestations it can take. This is because, if you haven’t already guessed, the Chinese language, and many other asian
languages for that matter, are comprised of one-syllable words put together to form different meanings. The trick is adding the correct tones to these word particles. In the case of “Ah-Ya,” one of four Chinese intonations are added to stress certain things.
The most common “ah-ya” is generally heard at the end of an Asian sentence to express frustration, trouble, or empathy. This involves the 4th tone, which is the highest and sharpest tone in Chinese. This also means that it requires quite a bit of energy and strength to pronounce. That is why it is almost universally used in arguments to add a much needed final punctuation mark, much like the Incredible Hulk might execute a “final smash” to vanquish his enemies.
An example of this might be:
“Report Card: 5 A, 1 B? Always a B in Math. Ah-ya!!!”
Many Asians (including myself) can remember this type of criticism in their younger days. The spitting. The hitting. The unnecessary accusations. I speak for all Asians when I say, “We hated it!” Now, however, I have come to realize that it was a way to pass on a trait so important to Asian survival that just the thought of its demise could destroy asian society as a we know it. By criticizing just about anything (and everything) that comes their way, Asian parents create higher expectations than people expect. This greatly adds to the ability of Asians to rise against adversity and become better citizens in the process.
Enough with the flashback…
When using different intonation, “ah-ya” can greatly dramatize a situation. “Ahhh-yahhhh, my foot is caught in the door…” or “With my final breath… Ah ya… I leave you my plastic wrapped furniture.” In other cases, it is a phrase inspired by awe: “Your son got accepted to Har-bard? Aiiiyaa!!!” It could even denote shock: “What!? Sriracha sauce on Pizza? Ah ya!”
Here’s what the Chinese Women’s Association of San Diego has to say:
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. ” – Chinese Women’s Association of San Diego.
With all that said, the next time you hear a Chinese couple screaming “ah-ya!” at one another, take a step back to ponder its contextual use. It could be to argue about a frivolous game of Mah Jong. It might be to praise a son or daughter for their academic achievement in life. It might even mean that they’re on the verge of internal combustion in some cases. Whatever the case, the Chinese have ingeniously designated an expression that can be used in just about any occasion to mean just about anything. Talk about Asian ingenuity.
Peace Out… Ah ya!
Note: Refrain from using this expression if what precedes it is not in Chinese, or you may be shunned by the Asians around you. Just Kidding. You’ll probably get a good laugh out of your friends if you do it like “uncle” from Jackie Chan Adventures.
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