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.
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?
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.
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 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.
5. Your NationalityProbably 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.
I told you Chinese was hard.
You have to learn words and numbers. It’s like they invented everything.
7. Numbers 1-10I 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.”
10. A secret weaponI 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?)