Noel Smith

4 minute read

Let’s admit it. Sometimes certain languages have words that just hit the nail on the head. In the case of Chinese, characters are often combined in interesting ways which produce words that are compact and concise and have no appropriate cognate in English. Here I’m thinking of xiangfa and banfa, loosely translated as “way of thinking” or “way of doing something.” I absolutely love these two Chinese words, and I often find myself searching (always in vain) for the English translation when engaged in conversation.

Another Chinese word that is pithy and powerful is renao—which literally translates to “hot and noisy.” I remember when I first learned this word I thought it had a negative connotation. But I was wrong—the dictionary equated it with the English words “bustling” and “lively.” While thinking of renao as lively is not incorrect, it still misses the mark.

Learning Chinese on the ground in China provided me with an opportunity to make sense of nearly every word I encountered in a practical and cultural context. So I quickly figured out that renao was a positive word used to describe places that were desired hotspots, such as restaurants, markets, and parks. In a social and cultural context in which personal space and privacy are rather new concepts, renao is a familiar and desirable thing.


Coming from a small town in the US, I always thought of renao as a negative thing. To me, renao was the loud, drunk construction workers yelling at each other in my hole-in-the-wall restaurant during lunch. It was the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at tourist destinations on every Chinese holiday, the screaming matches between friends sitting inches away on the bus, or the ear-piercing sounds of megaphones and venders peddling wares on the street. To be honest, for the years I lived and worked in China, I often searched for the opposite of renao. For example, my favorite time to be on the streets of China is during the Spring Festival Gala, when the streets are so silent you can hear a pin drop.

But to Chinese people, renao was always used in an affectionate way, as a badge of something uniquely Chinese that was missing in other places. I made this discovery years ago when someone said to me, when comparing the US to China—as is often done in everyday conversation:

美国好山,好水,好无聊 Meiguo hao shan, hao shui, hao wuliao (America has good mountains, good water, and is very boring)

中国好脏,好乱,好热闹 Zhongguo hao zang, hao luan, hao renao. (China is very dirty, very chaotic, and very lively)

In other words, sure, America may be cleaner and more beautiful than China, but it’s a boring place to live. And even though China is dirty and unorganized, it is bustling with life. It is lively. It is renao!

During the years I lived in China, I was never sure how to make sense of this phrase. But that would change on my last trip back to China.

Last year I bought a house in the US. I’ve officially made the move from living in some of the most polluted cities in China to calling one of the cleanest cities in the US home. I live in an outdoorsman’s paradise, and am surrounded by great mountains (hao shan) and crystal-clear water (hao shui). And even though most of my friends are spread across the globe, I have a few friends around my new home that I occasionally hang out with. That is, life is not boring (hao wuliao).

Or so I thought. Upon my return to China this last time, once I got back on the grind, I was suddenly reminded of how lacking my life was of renao. For the two months I was back in China, I had nearly every meal planned with someone. There was always something to do, someone to see, and very little time to be by myself.

But like all things in life, renao is best in small doses. Before the end of my first month in China, I grew tired of the liveliness and was longing for my quiet home with and backyard garden. I missed my weekend trips hiking in the mountains, walking on the beach, and going clamming. I missed mother nature and hearing myself think. I missed the clean air and blue skies, the presence of organization and people who followed rules. That is, I missed my “boring” life.

As I write this, nearly 6 months after my departure from China, I’m starting to get the renao itch again.

So what is Renao, you ask?

Renao is never being alone. Renao is standing shoulder-to-shoulder nearly everywhere you go. It’s fighting in lines, fighting to pay the bill, and the incessant sound of car horns. Renao is not being able to hear yourself think. Renao is round tables and restaurants, baijiu hangovers, and taking that cigarette even though you know you shouldn’t. Renao is life in China!

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