Living in China? Here’s 6 Ways to Make Conversation with Your Neighbours

Living in China? Here’s 6 Ways to Make Conversation with Your Neighbours
Nov 15, 2018 By Kyle Melieste , eChinacities.com

Expats living in China often complain about the difficulty of making conversation with locals in a social context. This is usually a problem brought about by different social behaviours as opposed to language barriers. In this guide, I’ll introduce you to some conversation topics you’re likely to come across when living in China and some model ways to respond.


Photo: shankars

Be prepared for standard conversation starters

Typical questions you might get asked when you first meet a Chinese person include: “Which country are you from?” (你来自哪个国家 - nĭ lái zī năge guó jiā, “Do you like China?”(你喜欢中国吗/nĭ xĭhuán zhōng guó ma) and “What do you think about Chinese food?” (你觉得中国菜怎么样/nĭ jué de zhōng guó cài zěn me yàng).

Regardless of what you actually think, it’s always best to avoid negative remarks about China and reply either positively “I really like it” (很喜欢/hěn xĭhuán),”It’s delicious” (好吃/hăo chī),”It’s very beautiful” (很漂亮/hěn piàoliáng), or more neutrally “Not bad” (不错/bú cùo; 还好/hái hăo).

Build up an appetite

By far the most common form of greeting in China is to ask whether or not someone has eaten (你吃了吗/nĭ chī le ma). This is effectively the same as asking someone “How are you?” in English.

Food has a long-standing tradition in Chinese culture and therefore any comments or chitchat about the various kinds of Chinese cuisine will always be welcomed by locals.

You can reply to the greeting “你吃了吗” by saying “Yes, I’ve eaten” (吃好了- chī hǎo le); “Not yet” (还没 /hái méi), or you can throw back the same question by asking “你呢?” (nĭ ne) followed by “What did you eat?” (你吃了什么/nĭ chī le shénme?).

Beyond this standard greeting, food is probably the most diverse topic to discuss with Chinese people. China is blessed with cuisines that vary from province to province and city to city, and therefore even the Chinese argue among themselves about which is the best.

The Chinese are very proud of their culinary heritage and dining out is the country’s main social pastime. Whenever you’re dining with your Chinese friends, you can expect to be asked “Do you like Chinese food?” (你喜欢吃中国菜吗/nǐ xǐhuān chī zhōngguó cài ma), ”Are you used to Chinese food?” (你吃的惯吗/nǐ chī de guàn ma) and “What do you think about it?” (你感觉怎么样/nǐ gǎn jiào zěn me yàng).

They will also be very keen to know what kind of food you eat in your home country, and may habour misconceptions that Western food is limited to bread, spaghetti, pizza and burgers. To be fair, they’re not far off, but learn some vocab to set them straight if you like.

Get over your taboos

The Chinese are very family-oriented people and therefore probing questions about one’s marital status and family life is considered small talk here. To many foreigners, this feels a little invasive, particularly when meeting someone for the first time, but roll with it and feel free to ask the same  questions of “Are you married?” (你结婚了吗/nǐ jiéhūn le ma) and “Do you have children?” (你有孩子吗/nǐ yǒu háizi ma?) right back at them.

Questions about one’s wage are also common, and as a foreigner you can expect to get asked about this a lot, more so if they know you can speak Chinese. If you feel uncomfortable answering such questions, providing vague responses such as “Not very high”(不太高/bú tài gāo) and “Not as high as yours”(没有你那么高/méi yŏu nĭ náme gāo)will hopefully suffice.

Flattery gets you everywhere

Complimenting one another on first meetings is a common practice of building “face” in China. Expect compliments about your appearance as well as comments about your bag, watch, shoes, clothes and even your pet (if you have one).

Being told that your skin is very white(你的皮肤很白/nǐ de pí fū hěn bái)or that you’re very tall(你很高/nǐ hěn gāo)may sound unusual to foreigner ears, but these kind of “compliments” are often used as icebreakers in China. Of course, it’s up to you whether you want to repay the compliment or not. Saying “Thanks” (谢谢/xíexie) is okay if not.

Talk about your country

Your home country is a fairly neutral topic and always generates curiosity among Chinese people. You will be interrogated with questions such as: “What’s the cost of living in country X? (在__生活费贵不贵/zài ____shēng huó fèi guì bú guì), “How’s the weather in country X (__的天气怎么样/___de tiān qì zěn me yàng), “Are the wages in country X high?”(__的收入高不高/___ de shōu rù gāo bú gāo), “How much is a house in country X (在__买套房子多少钱/zài __mǎi tào fáng zǐ duō shǎo qián), leading to a kind of “My country is better than yours” debate.

Chinese people are keen to see how far their money can go in comparison to other countries, and are especially curious about house prices abroad. If you praise China or mention anything negative about your home country, this will likely be like music to Chinese peoples’ ears, as they are very patriotic as a population.

Talk about festivals

China is home to a plethora of festivals that are very culturally important. As China’s Spring Festival approaches, you’ll probably be asked ”Are you going to go home to celebrate CNY?” (你要不要回国过年/nǐ yào bú yào huí guó guò nián), or “How will you celebrate the New Year?” (你要怎么过年/nǐ yào zěnme guò nián).

Many Chinese people have limited knowledge of foreign festivals (besides Christmas), but they are nonetheless curious about how they’re celebrated. They may ask “What festivals do you celebrate in country X (你们___庆祝什么节日/nǐ men ____qìngzhù shenme jiērì). With the main Western festivals being: Christmas (圣诞节/shèng dàn jiē), Thanksgiving (感恩节/gǎn ēn jiē) and Easter (复活节/fù huó jiē), you have plenty to talk about.

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Keywords: living in China

1 Comments

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Guest15381482
comment|75658|1709053

is this article some kind of joke? until the words laowai and waiguoren disappear from the mindset of the average Chinese person, westerners those who do not look asian will not feel comfortable living in and among a Chinese community. And you should not have to flatter anyone to simply live somewhere either.

Dec 04, 2018 10:38 Report Abuse