Survival Chinese: 10 Useful Words & Phrases for the Perpetually Clueless

July 21, 2011

This weekend, I’ll be heading to Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Warriors, to hang out with an American friend I met in Japan. This is the only real trip I have planned for my whole summer, so I’m pretty excited about it.

I haven’t traveled with this friend before, but I have a feeling we are going to make pretty good travel partners. She’s really laid back and so far she hasn’t seemed overly concerned or anxious about her trip to China. In fact, the only questions she’s emailed me have been regarding the beer.

Yep.

We’re going to get along just fine.

I do have to admit, though, I am a little bit nervous. You see, every time I ask her some question about our trip like, “Hey, any preference on where we should stay?”” or “How long do you think we should stay there?” or “Did you get my email about the beer?” she responds, “I’ll leave that decision up to the local.” (Okay, except for the beer decisions. She seems pretty concerned about making those decisions herself. As I said, we’re going to do just fine.)

You may be wondering who this local person is that she keeps referring to.

In fact, I was wondering about this myself for some time.

And, then it dawned on me.

That local person she kept talking about?

Was me.

Oh.

We may be in trouble.

I don’t know what would give her the impression that I actually know a thing or two about living in China. (Well, other than the fact that I have been living in China for the past five months. But this is just a detail, people.)

To tell the truth, I haven’t exactly become very “local” since moving to China. The majority of the people that I’ve met and have hung out with have been other expats living in my area. I truly do enjoy Chinese food (okay, well, the food that doesn’t involve my gnawing on a beak or a foot), but I tend to eat most of my meals at home. I don’t watch Chinese TV or listen to Chinese music or stay up-to-date with Chinese news. The only time I read any news articles about China is when they make watermelons explode or ban time travel. I don’t observe any of the local customs, aside from maybe wearing my pajamas in public. (But that’s not exactly a new thing for me.)

And then there’s the whole issue with the language.

I don’t know if you know this, but the whole Chinese language thing?

It’s hard, people.

It’s like it was purposely invented to ensure that people like me would fail miserably at it. It’s not one of those languages you can just kind of “pick up.” Admittedly, I’ve never been one of those people to just “pick up” any language. And, frankly, I’ve never understood those people who were like, “Oh, Swahili? Yeah, I just picked that up. No problem.” (Umm, what? Is there some kind of store where I can just drop by and pick up some Mandarin and, heck, maybe a few of the Romance languages while I’m at it?)

Honestly, in the past few months that I’ve lived in China, I’ve picked up shockingly little of the language.

I was even kind of worried I wouldn’t be able to figure out ten phrases to share for this post.

I know, I know. This is bad. I am bad. I should really apply myself more. I mean, after five months I should know at least twelve or thirteen phrases by now, right?

But, you know what, it’s kind of amazing how far you can get by in this country with just a little bit of language, a lot of hand gestures and a ridiculous amount of smiling like an idiot. For the most part, people tend to be pretty tolerant and helpful, and more than a few times someone has stepped forward and offered to translate for me.

Not that I’m blaming the tolerance of the Chinese people for my lack of Mandarin ability.

Nope. That would be wrong.

Instead I’m blaming you.

Yep.

You.

You see, one of the reasons why I write this blog is to encourage other people to travel if they want to.

But not just any people.

My people.

My people are not braving the backwoods with a backpack on while covered in the latest in moisture-wicking, multi-pocketed attire. Nope, instead, my people don’t brave a darn thing because they’re too busy covering themselves in the red wine stains and Cheeto crumbs. My people may not be capable of facing down pythons and pit bulls, but they do know a thing or two about facing down the business end of a margarita pitcher. My people may not be able to speak twelve languages. Heck, my people only need to speak one language — the universal language called Grinning Like an Idiot.

So should you be one of my people, I give you my list of all the Mandarin you will need on your next visit China. (Not sure if you’re one of my people? When visiting a country, do you tend to spend more time studying the regional flavors of potato chips rather than, say, the regional dialects? Yes? Then you’re one of us. Welcome to the fold.)

1.    Nihao (“Hello”)

If you’re going to spend the majority of a conversation, grinning like a fool and making questionable hand gestures, I find it’s best to start things off on a good foot with a friendly nihao.

You know, so they don’t take offense when you make a gesture, which you think means “train station,” but they take to mean “How much for your sister?” (Listen, it’s an easy mistake to make.)

2.    Xiexie (“Thank You”)

Just as it’s important to start things off on a friendly foot, I like to wrap up most of my conversations with a grateful xiexie.

I do this even when I’m not particularly grateful – like the time the cashier at the grocery store totally crushed my ice cream bar under a gallon bottle of water and all I really wanted to say was “Don’t make me cut you, woman.”

But I didn’t say that.

Because my mother raised me better than that.

And because I’m a guest in this country, and I should be courteous.

And, okay, because I only know a handful of phrases in Mandarin and, sadly, that’s not one of them. (But I’d like to think the glare I sent her after collecting my smushed ice cream bar was enough to make her rethink her priorities in life… or at least rethink the way she goes about ringing out groceries.)

3.    Zaijian (“Goodbye”)

Sometimes I tack this on to the end of a conversation when I really feel like showing off.

You could also say hui jian which means “see you later” if you’re feeling particularly fancy. But, this might not always be the best idea. Depending on how awkward or confusing the conversation might have been for the Chinese person involved, I suppose telling them that you’ll “see them later” might be seen as a threat – akin to the Terminator saying “I’ll be back.” In that case, I’d suggest just sticking to “goodbye” or maybe learning how to say, “Don’t worry. I’m not a cyborg” in Chinese. You know, just in case.

4.    Buzhidao (“I don’t know.”)

I can never remember the Mandarin expression for “I don’t speak Chinese” as it’s kind of long and cumbersome. (Go figure, right?) Besides, using this phrase doesn’t seem all that necessary for me. It’s pretty obvious to anyone after about thirty seconds of my grinning and gesturing routine that I can’t communicate in any kind of meaningful way.

Despite this, every once in a while someone will insist on trying to have a conversation with me to which I respond with buzhidao. Again, you’d think it would be obvious to pretty much everyone that I do not know anything about pretty much anything.

But, yet, a few people insist on giving me more credit than I clearly deserve.

Why?

Buzhidao.

5.    Your Nationality

Probably my favorite thing to tell people in China is my nationality. Usually, I just tell them it right away before they even get a chance to ask me. Like, right after I say nihao I might yell out, “American!”

You know, so I can really cut to the chase and leave out all that meaningless small talk. And because, well, I don’t really know any small talk.

Plus, I love the word for American in Chinese. The word for America is meiguo or “beautiful land,” so an American is a meiguo ren or “person of the beautiful land.”

How cool is that?

It sounds like I’m from some awesome planet filled with unicorns and rainbows and beautiful people and super-sized cheeseburgers. (Hey, it’s still America. Besides those unicorns have to eat something.)

6.    Dou shao qian? (“How much?”)

Obviously, this is a really useful phrase when haggling with taxi drivers or vendors, but it’s also kind of a trick question.

The trick being that after you ask the question, the person will answer you. But they won’t use words; they will use numbers.

See?

I told you Chinese was hard.

You have to learn words and numbers. It’s like they invented everything.

7.    Numbers 1-10

I was really super proud of myself when I first learned my numbers in Mandarin. I felt like I had conquered the world! (Yes, I have low expectations for myself. I find it keeps me grounded. Besides, I feel too much ambition would just interfere with my rigorous television viewing habits.)

I marched outside to share my newfound numeral skills with the locals, only to discover that even numbers are hard in Chinese. For example, two is er, but when you’re using it to count something, like money, it’s liang. And, for some reason, the people in my area pronounce the word for four (si) just like the word for ten (shi).

Great. As if I didn’t have enough problems with math to begin with.

8.    Zhege (“This” or “This one”)

I use this a lot while ordering food from street vendors or at restaurants with picture menus. All you have to do is point at what you want and say zhege.

I imagine pointing and grunting would probably have the same effect, but I like to keep things a bit classier than that, you know.

9.    Dui (“You are correct” or “yes”)

This expression is also really handy. I use it all the time to answer questions, just like “sure” or “okay.” For example, “Okay, that price is fine” or “Sure, drop me off here” or “Yes, you can have one of my sisters. I have three.”

See?

Handy, right?

10. A secret weapon

I think it’s important when learning a language (especially when you learn one as atrociously as I do), to learn a phrase or two that most people wouldn’t expect you to know. This keeps people on their toes and makes them think that maybe you know more than you’re letting on. They might even think you’re a lot smarter than they originally suspected and this whole gesturing and grinning thing is just a crazy act that you do.

Or maybe not.

Either way, you’re sure to impress someone.

For example, while living in Brazil, I would often bust out with some old-fashioned Portuguese idioms my teacher had taught me. To which my friends would usually respond with, “Who taught you that? No one says that any more. Don’t say that ever again.”

Okay, so maybe they weren’t too impressed.

In Japan, though, I had a pretty extensive knowledge of Japanese food words, which often surprised my Japanese friends who knew how crappy I was at having a basic conversation in Japanese. (What can I say? I knew what was important. Sure, I couldn’t tell you how long I’d lived in Japan or how to get to the train station, but I knew my way around a menu.)

I haven’t yet decided what my secret weapon will be in Mandarin, but I’m open to suggestions… maybe something useful… you know, like something I can use the next time the cashier crushes my ice cream bar. (Anyone know the word for “shiv” in Mandarin? Anyone?)

59

I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On July 21, 2011 at 4:52 pm Katherina said:

    The only word I learned during a week in Hong Kong was “gambei!” – my company’s CEO taught it to me!

  2. On July 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm Joseph said:

    Good lord, even these 10 helpful words/phrases seem like…well, Chinese to me…I most definitely need to learn how to point and grin (even though I’m frustrated by the language barrier), but hey, when you gotta eat, you gotta eat (and the chip store is closed – oh the horror)…so I have a couple of choices – learn to speak Chinese (not likely any time soon), learn to point and grin (doable), or if I’m traveling to China find an expat and revel in the fact that I know at least English…simple enough, no?
    PS your gift…ahem…medal, is coming along just fine – soon it will be ready for shipping 🙂

    • On July 21, 2011 at 9:46 pm Sally said:

      I think one of my few good qualities is that I am not very easily frustrated by the language barrier. When other people are like, “Arrgh! I can’t understand anything” I’m like “I understood “hello!” Yay!”. Of course this also works against me — as it means I’m more prone to just not learning the language since I’m unfazed by the fact that I don’t understand anything that’s going on and I know how far I can get by without it. Alas, and there ends the list of my good qualities. 🙂
      Looking forward to my medal!

  3. On July 21, 2011 at 5:50 pm Cindy said:

    I learned how to say “I didn’t do it” in Tibetan. That one is pretty awesome to know and many people were impressed. When I was walking the streets of the village we were staying in and someone called my name behond my bakc, calling out for me, I shouted “nga ha kuma sum”…Or just randomly during a Tibetan conversation between some friends, when I felled bored…Really helpfull!

    • On July 21, 2011 at 9:42 pm Sally said:

      Ha ha! That’s awesome. I love it. I totally want to learn how to say “I didn’t do it” in Chinese now. I could really see that coming in handy.

  4. On July 21, 2011 at 9:59 pm Lisa @chickybus said:

    Great post–real and funny! I taught in China one summer and then spent a couple weeks traveling and didn’t learn very much. What’s funny is, looking at your list, I’m realizing that I learned pretty much the same things (well, maybe 7 of them). I think I also learned how to say “very good” and “very bad.” I guess I wasn’t ‘very good’ at learning Chinese! 🙂

    PS: I agree with you re: the ‘secret weapon’ phrase…very useful indeed!

    • On July 21, 2011 at 10:04 pm Sally said:

      Thanks, Lisa. I’m glad you enjoyed the list. I had heard that it was really hard to travel in China without Chinese so I was actually surprised at how far I’ve gotten with so little. I guess it helps that I’m used to being clueless! I think “very good” and “very bad” would be helpful phrases. I should look them up! Maybe I could say “very bad” to the cashier the next time she messes with my ice cream bar. That should get the message across, right?

  5. On July 21, 2011 at 10:11 pm Lisa @chickybus said:

    I was in China about 10 years ago (I think) and it was VERY hard to travel at the time. I wasn’t there for long–taught in Changsha (characters only and no pinyin there!!) and then went to Shanghai (and a small island off the coast) and then up to Beijing (not as hard). Getting to the island was really hard (buying the ticket required me to have an index card with English + characters on it). And once I got there, the map was a nightmare. I had to use 3 different ones to make sense of it!

    ‘Very good’ (or ‘very bad’) was “hun hao”? I think? LOL…it’s been a long time!

    • On July 21, 2011 at 10:59 pm Sally said:

      Yeah, I think it would really matter where you are & when you are there. I don’t live in a very touristy area, but it is pretty developed so they’re not totally unused to foreigners here. Plus, it helps that I’m not too far from Shanghai.
      Ooo, and I’m happy to report that I already know “very good.” Wow, I’m even better at this Chinese thing than I thought! (Which, granted is still not “very good” at all 🙂 )

  6. On July 21, 2011 at 10:42 pm ehalvey said:

    I’m thinking your secret phrase should involve your aforementioned ice cream bar. Or potato chips. You know, super useful and everything.

  7. On July 22, 2011 at 9:22 am Megan said:

    Hahaha! I love the “Hello! American!” Good luck with the Chinese, lady.

    I didn’t even need to read the qualifications to know I was one of *your* people, by the way. I speak Grinning Like an Idiot pretty well and Potato Chip fluently.

  8. On July 22, 2011 at 10:12 am Lorna - the roamantics said:

    love it! but i think i need to learn how to say “please pass the cheetos” and “more wine please” 😉 i always have to learn “i’m allergic to bell peppers” because they don’t like me. LOVE the idea of a secret weapon! hilarious. a single gal friend of mine learned how to say something like “i have diarrhea in a few languages when she traveled so she could easily blow off locals who hit on her! can you imagine?! ha! think you should make this a series and teach us a few words every now & then!

    • On July 30, 2011 at 6:37 am Sally said:

      Ha, ha, I think “I have diarrhea” would be a pretty useful phrase to learn whether or not you want to blow men off or not. I may have to work on that one.

  9. On July 22, 2011 at 10:25 am Laurence said:

    Like Lisa I travelled in China just over a decade ago for a few months. In all that time I only managed to pick up about four words – “hello”, “thankyou”, “beer” and “rice”. Beyond that I mostly coped by pointing at a phrase book, or using a phrase book to decipher menus / timetables / everything else. I recall it as being a very challenging experience for the novice traveller, lightened by moments of wonderful clarity when an understanding was reached through the dark linguistic clouds.

  10. On July 22, 2011 at 4:14 pm choi kum fook said:

    Miss Sally, you are great! I am happy you have learned some common words in Mandarin. I admit that Mandarin is quite hard to learn. But, once you have learned it well, will fine every word has its own characteristic and meaningful. For example, the word Hao (good) =boy+girl. It means good for a family having son and daughter.Seriously speaking, such circumstance in China, you should learn it up very fast by right! Lastly, I hope we can converse in Mandarin nest year when I can probably see you!

  11. On July 22, 2011 at 4:26 pm Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista said:

    Very fun post! Languages can bit a bit overwhelming but I can’t even imagine how long it would take me to pick up a bit of Chinese. Yikes! I always make sure to know how to order a beer or wine. Does that make me one of your people?! 🙂

  12. On July 22, 2011 at 8:32 pm Ken C. said:

    Ah…you’d have us believe that “your people” are the relatively naive “tour bus” types, who wear cute name tags and follow guides hoisting bright umbrellas…

    While you’re probably comfortable with them, I think your tribe [so to speak] are more the long-term, unhurried maximum-stay-visa folks. The people on their own itinerary, who try the local foods without making faces, and complain infrequently (and only when necessary).

    Xi’an should be a wonderful site for a summer visit [google says to watch the heat & occasional rain]. Your language skills should be just enough to handle most situations. Travel safely!

    Hui jian.

  13. On July 23, 2011 at 8:46 pm Nomadic Samuel said:

    Ha! These phrases are great 🙂 One I’d like to add is…

    wǒ è le

    I’m hungry 😛

  14. On July 24, 2011 at 1:57 am Uncle Ed said:

    I wonder, have you thought about enrolling in grade school, you know, the big black haired white girl in the back of the class, sort of thing. Then when they do “Dick sees Jane” “Jane is walking Spot to the street corner”, maybe you could learn that way” Although failing kindergarten could be slightly traumatic, after a couple times you won’t even notice, and think of all the fun learning Chinese culture. 🙂 The dumb part is I would be mighty tempted.

    • On July 30, 2011 at 6:40 am Sally said:

      Uh yeah, I don’t think they let big white girls into Chinese grade school. Plus, I’d probably end up learning words like “puke” and “cooties”… which, come to think of it, may be kind of useful.

  15. On July 24, 2011 at 10:13 am Sarah said:

    I have haphazardly picked up my secret weapons from the Korean kindergartners whom I teach.

    It’s surprising how useful it can be to know words like “battery”, “vomit,” and “trash bag.”

    But what’s more surprising? A 5 year old and 26 year old equally see the importance these words.

  16. On July 26, 2011 at 5:51 am NomadDanib said:

    I love this. I love TRYING to learn languages. I suck at actually learning them. But i do know how to say many dirty things in portuges (tho my favorite is actu an american saying that doesnt quite translate into portuges totally correct, and is not really proper to say here…tho if you want to know it, feel free to email me and ask.)

    When i went to croatia i learned (mind the spelling thats prob wrong):
    Je sam amerikana golpe. Govorite le ingleski
    Which means ‘i ama stupid american. Do you speak english?”

    I found out it surprisingly comes in handy and is a great way to break the ice…cause everyone knows americans only speak one language.
    Except if your like me.
    And you failed english 3x in college.

    Haha..im so american i dont even speak my own language!

    Zaijian!

    • On July 30, 2011 at 6:30 am Sally said:

      I think just shouting “American!” at everyone is getting the “I’m a stupid American” message across loud & clear, don’t you? But, then again, people always try to speak Chinese with me and I’m like, “Didn’t you hear? I’m American! Sheez!”

  17. On July 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm Fiona at Life on Nanchang Lu said:

    Can I suggest ‘Dao le!’ (We’ve arrived!) as a secret weapon, said repeatedly and in increasing volume until the taxi in which you are a passenger screeches to a halt fifty yards past your designated destination.

    “Dao le. Dao Le! DAO LE DAO LE DAO LE!!!!!!” works every time, even for those deaf taxi drivers who pretend they don’t understand Mandarin.

  18. On July 27, 2011 at 10:17 am Michi said:

    Mmmmm. I really want to go beer tasting after reading this post.

  19. On July 29, 2011 at 3:59 pm Carina said:

    Hi Sally, this is just toooooo hilarious! What a great post! Why don’t you try to get your favorite travel summer song quote translated: “When we meet what we’re afraid of, we find out what we’re made of.” ? I am sure, if you shout that out at every possible occasion. Everybody will be impressed!!! 😉

    • On July 30, 2011 at 6:26 am Sally said:

      Thanks, Carina, glad you enjoyed the post. And, yes, I’m sure shouting song lyrics at someone WOULD be impressive, but that’s a lot of words for me to remember. I was thinking my secret weapon should be something short, like “I’m happy!’ or “Shut up!” Not nearly as eloquent, but probably easier to remember!

  20. On July 31, 2011 at 10:16 am AJ - Fantastic Travels said:

    Brilliantly funny and very real. Great read, hope your trip to Xi’an goes well and that you can guide your guess around China as expertly as any other local. If she know less Chinese than you do. You’ll seem like an expert even if you’re not. Chin up Sally, you’ll be fine I’m sure. (still lol).

    • On August 3, 2011 at 5:55 am Sally said:

      Thanks, AJ. The trip went pretty well and, luckily, we were able to crash a group tour the second day so some of the pressure was off of me to be a good guide.

  21. On August 3, 2011 at 6:53 pm Matt said:

    I went to China earlier this year, and bought the Rosetta Stone program 2 months before the trip thinking I would be able to nail down some conversational Mandarin. Yeah right. I ended up copying a bunch of phrases of a website that translated commonly used travel phrases. It was great because it was written in “our” letter as well as Chinese. I made it into a PDF and mailed it to my phone so I could just show people the phrase I needed. Worked like a charm…

    • On August 4, 2011 at 1:03 am Sally said:

      I have a little phrase book that I carry with me & do the same thing with if I need to. It works pretty well; plus, I like the drama of having the person wait for me to complete my “sentence” while I flip through the book. Very suspenseful!

  22. On August 6, 2011 at 3:35 pm Ceri said:

    Please, hun. You definitely know the basics … You know more than I know of Spanish – and it’s only 2 months away until I hit Mexico. Eeek!

    Think I’m definitely one of ‘your’ people. 😉

  23. On August 17, 2011 at 7:16 am AlTay said:

    Hilarious! I am definitely following your posts from now on. I am Chinese but not from China. I too have difficulty follow chinese different accents. I am going to China this Dec. Must brush up my language otherwise I might get lost there!!

    • On August 19, 2011 at 5:55 am Sally said:

      I recommend just walking around in a clueless haze while in China. Sure, you may get lost but the dazed look on your face makes the locals take pity on you and point you in the right direction. Works for me every time!

  24. On September 2, 2011 at 8:36 pm Snake Plissken said:

    Just discovered your blog last week, have been reading since, this is truely hilarious post, bookmarked!

    About the secret weapon word… well…
    How about this super useful one?

    小心 – “Shaw shing” (be careful)

    Since you are a jogger – when you see those pesky pedestrians you can scream at the top of you lungs – “SHAW SHING!” – which in this context means “WATCH OUT!” and they will jump out of your way! Useful ain’t it?

    Now, about that pesky cashier.
    You got several options here.
    You can use :

    Add one more word to the end :

    小心点 – “Shaw shing den” (“be a little bit more careful” when she crush your ice-cream bar)

    or

    给我小心点 – “Gay wuah shaw shing den” (“you better watch out!” ……..before I shiv you one!)

    Which is really short for
    你给我小心点 – “Ni gay wuah shaw shing den” (“you better watch out!” ……..before I shiv you one!)

    Added bonus if you say it with one-eyed Joe expression.

    Hope that help.

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