Project Nayuki

國內 doesn’t mean domestic


I’m ethnic Chinese and I live in Toronto. My parents and I have many Chinese friends, and we often talk to them in Chinese. From this exposure to the language, I have noticed a number of peculiar things, and here I will discuss this particular one: the colloquial meaning of 國內 (guó nèi) does not match the obvious meaning.

Consult any Chinese-English (or even Japanese-English) dictionary, and it should be clear that 國內 only means domestic or internal to a country. Indeed, this set of definitions is logically implied by the meanings of the individual characters, where means country and means inside.

But in conversational usage, 國內 almost always means China. Let me give an example: “這些衣服?我在國內買的。”. A naive English translation of this may be “These clothes? I bought them domestically.”. The first sentence is straightforward. But the correct translation of the second sentence, which is almost always what the speaker is trying to convey in such a conversation, is “I bought them in China.”. This is the correct translation whether the speaker is standing in China or abroad or otherwise. In fact, the translation can be even further elaborated as “I bought it when I was back visiting my homeland of China, and now I brought it with me here.”.

To illustrate the problem with the roles of Chinese and Western cultures interchanged, consider this analogous example: Jane grew up in the United States and works for a US company. She was recently sent to China for a year-long assignment. Naturally, she brought along her personal electronic gadgets to China. One day in China, she is talking to a Chinese coworker in English. She explains, “I bought this iPhone domestically; it’s really affordable domestically.”. Do you see what’s wrong?

Personally, I find this subtle shift in meaning rather disturbing. From my observations, the people who tend to speak Chinese in Canada are those who had grown up in China, spending at least 5 to 10 years of their school life in China. This includes parents who immigrated to Canada, and children who spent middle school or high school in China before immigrating to Canada. In light of this, I can see why 國內 means China. I think that for these people, they still identify their nationality as being Chinese; furthermore, when they are speaking Chinese, they forget the fact that they are in a foreign country. Finally, for completeness’ sake, I should note that I refer to China as 中國, not 國內.

What do you think? Do you hear 國內 being used to mean China too? Is my interpretation of the situation reasonable or off the mark?