In this lesson, you will learn to discuss and provide context on a social phenomenon that your interlocutor finds it hard to comprehend because of lack of contextual information on her part.

This dialogue occurs in the summer of 2020 in the height of tensions about the pandemic. Many discussions were ongoing at the time about whether or not face masks were scientifically proven to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The following conversation takes place at Suzhou University between two language partners: an American college student studying Chinese (male voice) and a Chinese college student studying to teach Chinese (female voice). The Chinese language partner has read some news about Americans being reluctant to wear masks. She finds this behavior counterintuitive because wearing masks against an infectious respiratory disease seems like an obvious response to many Chinese people. Thus she asks her American language partner why Americans are, as she sees it, reluctant to wear masks. The American recognizes that Americans were slow to start wearing masks, and provides context on the forces that influenced this situation. Listen to the conversation to see what you can make out of it.


Listen to the dialogue 3 times.

Click here to read the dialogue in Chinese characters. (Simplified and traditional)

Click here to read the dialogue in pinyin.


Here are explanations for each of the four lines of the dialogue.

1. 中国学生:你们美国人怎么不戴口罩? 是不是因为你们的总统都不戴口罩?

The phrase for ‘to wear a mask’ or ‘to wear masks’ is 戴口罩. Since the Chinese language partner thinks that people would naturally be inclined to wear masks to prevent oneself or others from getting sick, she asks her American language partner why Americans don’t wear masks, with an assumption that people tend to do so spontaneously in a pandemic:


Immediately after asking the question, the Chinese student provides her speculative explanation on this seemingly unusual phenomenon in the American society. She notices that the American president does not wear a mask in most public appearances, so she suggests that this might be the reason why Americans are reluctant to wear masks. That is, there might be some effects of behavioral modeling coming from the leader of the country. The word for ‘president (of a country/nation)’ is 总统. The Chinese student thus offers her reasoning and seeks confirmation from her American language partner by saying, 


The speaker adds 都 here to indicate that the president has been unwilling this whole time to wear a mask, against recommendations from public health organizations.

这个课上起来真不容易,学生都不愿意说话。 This class is pretty tough to teach. The students aren’t willing to speak up.

她的爸妈很严格,所以她都不敢跟他们说这个问题。 Her parents are really strict, so she’s not really willing to talk about this issue with them.

Her perspective on the U.S. president’s reluctance to wear masks is based on Chinese state media accounts, including reports on the president’s twitter account, that he does not vocally support the wearing of masks. This has likely influenced her perspective on Americans’ attitude to the pandemic at large. She may view the whole country as behaving cavalierly, taking the president’s actions as representative of the whole. Bearing this in mind, the American can maintain a more neutral stance, explaining the context of the situation without taking a political stance.

2. 美国学生:可能有的人是真的因为这样就不愿意戴了,但不是每个人都这样。其实我们的政府刚开始的时候没有建议人们戴口罩。说是因为一线人员都不够用了,还得向社会征集……


The American language partner agrees partially with his Chinese partner’s explanation. He thinks that some people’s unwillingness to wear masks may truly be influenced by the president’s behavior and the message that is behind it, but he insists that not everyone is like this. So the American student expresses his partial agreement by saying:




这样 refers to her earlier comment that the president has not been wearing masks.


The pattern 是因为 is used to provide causes for an event. For example, your classmate assumes that the reason why 小明 did not come to class today is because he overslept again, but you know that 小明 does not feel well today and that’s why he didn’t come to class. So you correct your classmate’s assumption by saying:


是因为身体不舒服才没来上课。It’s because he’s feeling poorly that he didn’t come to class.


他没来上课是因为他身体不舒服。He didn’t come to class because he’e feeling poorly.


The phrase 是真的因为 is used when the speaker wants to emphasize the validity of the causal relation at hand. The American student in the conversation thinks that it is likely that there are some people who are unwilling to wear masks exactly because of what the Chinese student is describing here—that is, the president has not been wearing them:






If someone doesn’t believe Xiao Ming’s excuse for missing class, you might insist by saying:


他是真的因为身体不舒服才没来上课。It’s really because he’s not well that he didn’t come to class.


After pointing out that not everyone’s reluctance to wear a mask is a direct result of the president’s behavior, the American student brings up another force that may well have influenced the situation and that the Chinese student might not be aware of. That is, the American government, more specifically, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), did not advise people to wear masks at the start of the pandemic. Let’s listen to what the American student says:




政府 is ‘government’ and 建议 is ‘to advise’.


政府建议民众尽量不要自行开车到会场。The government has advised the general public not to drive to this event. (for reasons of traffic congestion)


医生建议奶奶做些重量训练来维持骨骼强度。The doctor advised that my grandmother do some strength training in order to maintain bone strength.


教授建议我们现在就开始准备,这样毕业的时候才不会太忙。Professors advise us to start preparing now so we won’t feel too rushed when we graduate.


‘At the start, at the beginning’ is 刚开始 or 刚开始的时候. This phrase is used to indicate the time when something begins or to contrast a past situation with a present one. For example,


刚开始的时候我完全没有经验,不过现在我什么企划都做过了。At the beginning I had no experience at all, but now I’ve done everything at this company.


刚开始我不太适应台北的生活,但是后来认识了一些朋友以后,就不觉得了。At the start I was not very used to living in Taipei, but after I made some friends, I don’t feel like this anymore.


The American language partner then explains why the government did not advise people to wear masks at the start of the pandemic. He states that it was because there weren’t enough masks for first responders, and hospitals even put out calls for mask donations to equip their staff. 


‘First responders’ is 一线人员 in Chinese.


To say that some resource is or was not enough, you can use the phrase 不够用. For example, you run out of your monthly allowance so you ask your mother for more: 


妈,我这个月的零花钱不够用了,可以多给我一点吗? Mom, my monthly allowance isn’t enough (I’ve spent it all). Can you give me a bit more?


Or when you ask your partner whether you should change your phone plan because you often run out of your mobile data: 


我的手机流量常常不够用,你看是不是要换一个方案? My phone data often isn’t enough. Do you think I should change plans? 


‘To collect something (by asking publicly)’ is 征集, and if you want to say ‘to collect something from someone’, you can use the pattern 向 someone 征集 something . For example, 


向社会大众征集意见 ‘to collect opinions from the public’. 


向全国公开征集志愿者 ‘to publicly call for volunteers from the whole nation’.


Now let’s listen to how the American student in the conversation uses the pattern 是因为 to explain why the government did not advise people to wear masks at the start of the pandemic:




Because the original sentence is very long, the event and its cause are expressed in two separate sentences. The second sentence, 说是因为一线人员都不够用了, has the same subject as the first sentence, that is 政府, so the cause that is mentioned after 是因为 is the CDC’s claim. The event that results from what is stated in the second sentence is expressed in the first sentence. So, 说是因为一线人员都不够用了,还得向社会征集 means that the government said that their reason for not advising mask wearing was because there weren’t enough masks for first responders and hospitals even had to put out calls for mask donations from society.


3. 中国学生:但是你们还是得戴啊,要不然生病了怎么办?


But the Chinese student still thinks that Americans should wear masks because the risks of getting sick are just too high. She argues this point through a rhetorical question:




She insists that even non-medical personnel should wear masks. She emphasizes her point with the particle 啊 at the end of her sentence. This 啊 is said with the hope of getting her language partner to understand her reasoning and even agree with her.




要不然 means ‘otherwise’ and can be used to indicate what bad consequences there may be if the event stated in the first half of the sentence is not realized. For example,


我们最好早点去排队,要不然很可能会买不到票。We’d better go stand in line earlier; otherwise we are likely to end up with no tickets.


我睡觉前都敷这种面膜,要不然我会有很多皱纹。Before bed, I put on a moisturizing face mask; otherwise I’ll get wrinkles.


4. 美国学生:是(啊、啦),但是他们还是说,“如果你没病的话呢,就是没症状的话,就不要戴,把口罩留给有需要的人。”


The American student agrees that no one wants to get sick, but the fact was that there simply weren’t enough masks for everyone. So he restates the government’s guidelines and the rationale behind them:




Note how the American language partner uses 是啦, 但是… to acknowledge the validity of his Chinese partner’s argument and to quickly draw attention back to the government’s guidelines and the reality that backed up those guidelines, that is, even first responders—those who need masks the most—were in dire need of masks. Facing this challenge, the government thus advised that those who do not have symptoms should not wear them. 


‘Symptoms’ is 症状.


她目前没有什么症状。Currently, she’s not presenting any symptoms.


如果有任何症状的话,就请你不要来办公室。If you present any symptoms at all, please do not come into the office.


流感的症状跟新型冠状病毒很像。Symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are pretty similar.


新型冠状病毒的患者可能会有发烧、咳嗽等症状。Patients of COVID-19 may show symptoms of fever, cough and so on.


The CDC’s recommendations maintained that those without symptoms did not need to wear masks. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like masks should be left for those who need them most. 把…something 留给…someone means ‘to leave something for someone’.


我把一份盒饭留给你了。I left you a boxed lunch.


我们应该把这些东西留给一线人员。We should leave these things for the front line workers.


这是老一辈的观念,得把房子和田地都留给儿子。This is a value of the older generation, that is, leaving all the houses and lands to sons.


现代人的生活忙碌,但还是要记得把足够的时间和空间留给自己。Although lives of modern people are busy, we still should remember to leave enough time and space for ourselves.