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#80 Aiya!

Posted June 24th, 2008 by Peter · 46 Comments

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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46 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Peter // Jun 24, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    From San Diego Chinese Women’s Association:
    I had a craving for a sweet taste of childhood the other day; so I went shopping for a can of grass jelly. I was putting said treat into my cart and looking for my Ranch 99 VIP card when a woman with three kids in tow ran into my cart.

    At that moment, both of us said, “Aiya.” The children giggled, she apologized, and I quickly replied, “M’sai. No apology needed.” Although it was a minor exchange, I later realized that Aiya is more than just two characters; it is part of the spirit of being Chinese … in a moment of surprise I could’ve said just about anything – my reaction was to say Aiya. I was surprised that I would instinctively use my mother’s tongue because I’ve always known that I don’t speak Cantonese well. No matter how far removed I’ve become as an American, there is something at my core that is Chinese.

    I decided to conduct informal research about Aiya. First, I went to a national bookstore chain to review its Chinese language materials. I thumbed through all the Chinese language materials, but couldn’t find any vocabulary drill including Aiya. Seeing that the publishers of tourist books were not going to be helpful, I decided to observe its use in the community. I clipped my cell phone to my belt, grabbed a couple of bakery pink boxes and sat around San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square drinking 7-Up and eating dim sum. Lo and behold, I heard Aiya used in a variety of ways.

    Based on my personal experience and this observation, I’ve developed a personal understanding of Aiya. Aiya is 24-carat Chinese gold. Aiya is more than just two characters; it is part of the spirit of being Chinese and may even go back to antiquity. It is used wherever the Chinese have been in the diaspora of the last sesquicentennial.

    How you say Aiya can say volumes about your state of mind. For example, when the problem is minor, I can say “Aiya” in a short/curt manner. However when I am extremely stressed, I can draw it out to nearly five seconds. (I’m planning an experiment where I get a room full of people to meditate using it as a mantra.. With practice, I might get them to draw out Aiya even longer.)

    To explain more deeply how to use Aiya, imagine a worker slaving on the Great Wall when he accidentally drops a brick (a quickie Aiya) on the work foreman (Aiya!!) – which gets him thrown into the wall to perish an agonizing death (AIYA!!!!)

    As you read the following ways Aiya can be used, the mental image to solicit is to picture any of the mothers from Amy Tan’s *The Joy Luck Club.* For those who have met anyone in my family, you can picture one of my relatives instead:

    Surprise: “Aiya! A surprise party for me?”

    Joy: “Aiya! You got 5 out of 6 in Lotto!”

    Distaste: “You expect me to drink that herbal medicine concoction of yours? Aiya!”

    Doubt: “Do I have to wear that lemon yellow/lime green sweater my mother made? I wonder if she would notice if I ‘accidentally’ donated it to Goodwill? Aiya.”

    Awe: “Your son got accepted into Harvard Law School!?! Aiya!”

    Irritation: “Clean your room. Aiya! Why you live like a pig?”

    Large astonishment: “Aiya! She switch majors from Business to Art History!”

    Disapproval: “Report Card-5 A, 1 B? Always a B in Math. Aiya.” (Actual quote from my mother when I was a sophomore in high school.)

    Shock: “What? Ketchup on Yang Chow Fried Rice … Aiya!”

    Lamentation: “Aiya … why me … ungrateful child … Aiya.” (Probably what my mother is thinking when she reads this.)

    Outrage: “Never clean your rice cooker with that steel scouring pad! Aiya!”

    Verge of internal combustion: “I can’t deal with the family asking when and if I’m getting married! Ai-yaaa!”

    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.

    It is unfortunate that English has no equivalent to Aiya. It saddens me that American English doesn’t afford me a fun phrase to emote. “Shucks”, “Darn” and the plethora of swear words cannot convey what Aiya can. So, I’m going to propose that we start an initiative for American English should grab on Aiya or the Yiddish “Oy” for our use.

    So the next time you go to a teahouse for dim sum or decide to go shopping at an Asian market, listen to the lively banter as friends and families meet. It’s a wonderfully vibrant, alive community out there. Who knows, you just might get caught up the lyrical rhythm of the people


    Aiya, what fun!

  • 2 Derek // Jun 24, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    I’ve used aiya for years, but until I came across this blog I didn’t connect it directly with my Chinese bosses. I noticed that one of them used it a good bit, sure, but so did the guys who worked in the back of the restaurant(from Mexico). I actually thought my boss and I both picked up the phrase from them.

    I’m not going to stop using it just because people might think I’m a copycat, though. It’s a regular part of my vocabulary, and I assimilated it into my speech the same way I’ve assimilated everything else I use in day to day speech — I learned it fair and square! I’m sure my kids are going to grow up saying it, too.

  • 3 Peter // Jun 25, 2008 at 12:00 am


  • 4 fcuk // Jun 25, 2008 at 6:57 am

    I can think of a four-letter word I use when I need an English “aiya”…

  • 5 YvesPaul // Jun 25, 2008 at 7:47 am

    Not too be rude but I think the word there are some four-letter English curse word that are quite versatile in that sense too. Although nothing make me feel more like home than “Aiya” or “La” or any exclamation Cantonese, Chinese or even Chinglish words and pronunciations.

  • 6 ANON // Jun 25, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    I thought it was

    AYE YA

  • 7 YASPy Chick // Jun 26, 2008 at 5:22 am

    It’s Ai ya!!!! Basically the same as “Oy!” or “Oy Vey!”

    There’s nothing in English that comes close. OMG doesn’t count.

  • 8 AiyaMama // Jun 26, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    aiya is not a curse word. it can be used affeciately, mother to child: aiya! how did you get so dirty??

    aigoo is the korean version of aiya. what other versions are there??

  • 9 AiyaMama // Jun 26, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    i meant to type affectionately, oops.

  • 10 kvietgrl // Jun 27, 2008 at 1:47 am

    it’s aiya in vietnamese as well =P

  • 11 fungible associate // Jun 29, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    I use aiya all the time. Namely at work.

    When I wake up and realize I have to go to work –aiya. When I walk into work and realize I am, in fact, at work–aiya. When someone at work gets me mixed up with the only other Asian person within a 5 floor radius of me–aiya. When I realize the man’s got me down–well, I say another word that begins with the letter “f” and ends with the letters “uck” but then I shake my head and say “aiya.”

  • 12 solong2010 // Jun 29, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    It’s “Ooouy” in Khmer =)

  • 13 Diane // Jul 1, 2008 at 8:03 am

    i’m vietnamese and we use this identically lol..i’m so prone to using it in all contexts XD

  • 14 chanpon // Jul 3, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    As others have already noted, it’s “ai ya” (å“Žå‘€! ), not “ah ya.”

  • 15 Charlene // Jul 6, 2008 at 5:10 am

    [...] awesome blog post about the use of the phrase “ai ya” on Stuff Asian People Like – another funny blog post, What kind of Asian are you? – Translucent Sea [...]

  • 16 gian // Jul 6, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    Filipino’s: Ay nako! Pronounced: Ai na-koh.

  • 17 Ed // Jul 18, 2008 at 8:10 am

    In Indonesian, it’s “aduh!”

  • 18 Antonia // Jul 22, 2008 at 6:40 am

    I remember “Ai ya!” being used more by Taiwanese, especially the teens, than any other Mandarin speaking group. The recent increase usage of the expression spread throughout the pan-Chinese/Mandarin world after the rise in popularity of Taiwanese teen-themed dramas.

  • 19 YZ // Jul 24, 2008 at 3:20 am

    if you’re going to talk about aiya, i would have say Ta Ma De (他妈的)will be a must. so many people use it in front of any noun they say or as a way to begin a sentence. hey the guy in the suit on the first pic probably said it ten times in that phone call. it may even be the words he’s using now.

  • 20 Sol // Jul 27, 2008 at 4:45 am

    In Malaysia, our Manglish have produced an amusing concoction of local Asian languages and English. Regardless of our race and creed, we can say ‘aiya’ whether or not the preceding sentence was in Chinese!

  • 21 sy88 // Aug 2, 2008 at 9:00 am

    Sol, if you liked this article, wait til you see one of the upcoming pieces. It’s especially applicable to people like you!

  • 22 Diego // Aug 19, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Its also interesting that not only asians have started to use this exclamation. Many here in NYC, particularly lifelong students of kungfu
    since childhood have picked it up from our Sifu.
    Now most of us in our 30′s or 40′s ,we’ve been hearing it for so long that to us its a normal part of our speech. I’ve been using it since grammer school and it usually starts up a few conversations when people hear it.

  • 23 Ryan Friday // Sep 17, 2008 at 12:16 am

    Hello to the creators of stuffasianpepoplelike,

    I did not realize the existence of this (awesome) website until recently. In the meantime I had created my own…however seeing how well established this one is I have stopped production of my own.. I just think there’s no point in having a “competing” blog.

    but hey check out some of the stuff I’ve posted, you’ve covered most of what Ive discussed but I’d appreciate it, maybe you’ll find something new to mention.

    Keep up the good work everyone!

  • 24 Shaun // Sep 17, 2008 at 8:24 am

    Hey Ryan, on behalf of Peter and the whole of stuffasianpeoplelike, I’d love to welcome you to SAPL!

    You’re more than welcome to contribute to SAPL, and it’d be great if we could crossover and reference some of your stuff on stuffasianslike. Of course, this is all up to Peter, but you seem to have done a fine job regardless.

    Drop me an email at and we can discuss it more if you want.

    BTW glad you like SAPL!

  • 25 pl // Nov 8, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    I’m white and I say “aiya.” I didn’t realize this was an Asian expression. I guess you pick up this kind of stuff growing up in Vancouver..

  • 26 Dani // Nov 29, 2008 at 2:52 pm


    i’m chinese, and have spoken chinese at home the entire time i was growing up, and i don’t think i’ve ever said “aiya” in my life. my mom said it frequently, my dad seldom ever said it.

    it may have been that i never picked it up because my dad is very well-spoken, intelligent, and sophisticated and my mom sounded like a crazy uneducated old woman when she said “aiya”… or when she said anything, actually.

  • 27 -- // Jan 1, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    “To the Chinese, whether by cultural design or sheer ease of pronunciation, [this] one one-syllable phrase has encapsulated the essences of fear, empathy, despair, pain, and surprise all at the same time.”

    I think the closest English equivalent is “Dude,” as in:

    [fear]–”Dude, that zombie is coming right at us!”

    [empathy]–”Dude…that sucks…I’m sorry you lost an eye to that zombie.”

    [despair]–”Dude…I am so not going to get that eye back, am I?”

    [pain]–”Dude!!! Get this knife out of my eye!!!”

    [surprise]–”Dude! You got me a glass eye! Thanks!”

    Although, I’m not sure why “OMG” wouldn’t work as well…

  • 28 narae // Jan 8, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    i initially said aiya…. and then i went to the mainland (from hawaii) and someone pointed it out to me
    and then i gradually shortened it to just the ai part…. i think i just might start using aiya again, because aigoo was never really my thing

  • 29 Ruby // Mar 28, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Actually when you think about it, the american equivalent of “aiya” is “dang”.
    “Dang! You really slapped him?”
    “I can’t believe he did that….dang…”
    “Dang it I can’t get the computer to work.

  • 30 hey! // Jul 21, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    nope. it’s not dude, or dang. it’s “hey.” “hey” has multiple meanings, and is said by everyone. “dude” and “dang” are not said by everyone.

    “hey! how are you?”

    “hey! what are you doing here?!”

    “hey! get off my sister!”

    “hey! you’re a dick!”

    “hey! that’s a great idea!”

    i could go on, but i don’t think i need to.

  • 31 hey! // Jul 21, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    i forgot to mention, you don’t have to add any of the stuff i added after “hey” in my examples, which is how it’s similar to “aiya.” because you can sense the intent by how the person says it.

    now i’m done.

  • 32 Brian Tu // Aug 3, 2009 at 11:30 am

    hmm, i think Aiya is the 2nd tone, not the 4th tone…

  • 33 Sue Sing // May 16, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    @Ed, In Malaysia, the Malays use aduh, kantoi or aiya too

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  • 35 Jennifer // Aug 25, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    Hmm lol I say aiya instead of ow

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  • 37 Ai? // Nov 17, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Oh, I remember this too well.

    Our grandmother came to visit us, and the first sentence that came out of her mouth was,

    “Aiya, you’re late!”

    Well, yeah, by 30 seconds. But moving on….

    The whole time she was with us, she would always use ‘aiya’. I guess it sort of rubbed off on me, since there was one time that I said it when I slammed my hand onto the counter, but yeah…

    I just use “Ai!” now. Seems easier to me.

  • 38 yiwu market // Jan 4, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    Interesting post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting.

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  • 40 Mai // Mar 26, 2011 at 3:56 am

    Lol, makes sense to me..
    I’m Filipino-Chinese and whenever I’m shocked at some point I say “Aiya!”.
    I also mispronounce some Filipino words. But I really haven’t been to China, weird.

    I like this article.

  • 41 Mai // Mar 26, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Oh, wait. I’ve been to Hong Kong. But still not long enough to say ‘che-ong ah’ (which my mouth just made up) instead of ‘kung tiyaka’ (koong chaka; meaning ‘then if’ or something).

  • 42 Girl Here // Aug 5, 2011 at 2:07 am

    I don’t think Indians say this….

  • 43 Cyn // Aug 26, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    My up-bringing has forever engraved the Ai-ya into my speech, not as badly as my dad uses it (every 3rd sentence!) but still there.

  • 44 Mr. Duby // Apr 18, 2012 at 11:58 am

    I think the English equivalent is the F word lol

  • 45 ilovehorseyrides // Jun 9, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    If I had $1 every time 1 of my family members said “ai-yah!” since the year I was born (1992) I would be so rich LOL

  • 46 Aiya // Nov 22, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    I love my name. It seems to have a meaning in every language. I first learned the Chinese meaning while learning Mandarin. My teacher would often say it whenever someone screwed up and several miscommunications occurred. I was intended to have the Japanese name for love’s direction but at this point it could mean anything

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