When I was younger, it never even occurred to me that you could learn Chinese. Sure, mastering it will take years of dedicated practice, but the truth is that you can actually pick up the basics pretty quickly, and you’ll benefit a lot from doing so. With the help of my Chinese friend Lily, here I bring you an introduction to the basic principles of Chinese and offer up some essential Mandarin phrases for new China expats.
Source: Road Trip with Raj
English isn’t so widely spoken in Mainland China, so you’ll likely need to rely on your phone for translations when you first arrive. But don’t worry; many younger people, especially in first-tier cities, actually understand some English (and more than they’ll let on). There’s a fair amount of written English around too, on street signs and in the metro, for example. Some situations will be more challenging than others, but there’s almost always a workaround.
As you’ve probably heard, Chinese is a tonal language. These tones can take a while to adjust to, but getting them right is often essential for conveying meaning. The best way to learn the tones is with the help of a native speaker who can demonstrate them and correct you where you go wrong. New China expats starting from scratch, therefore, are highly recommended to take at least some formal lessons to ensure you nail the tones and the correct sounds of pinyin -- the romanization of Chinese script, which is not always read as it appears in English. I’d also recommend watching several YouTube videos to better understand both tones and pinyin. Both can seem daunting at first, but with a little practice, they’ll become second nature before you know it.
Once you’ve mastered tones and pinyin, a good place to start on your Mandarin journey is by learning the numbers and the hand signals that go with them (no, it’s not as simple as holding up the correct amount of fingers). Learning the numbers will help you navigate many facets of life in China more easily, which will hopefully encourage you to learn more Chinese. Like many things, it's harder and sometimes even impossible to learn from books and screens, so get yourself out there and get involved!
Learning the Chinese Locals Actually Use
Every language changes over time, and you’re likely to find that some phrases you might learn when starting out in Chinese aren't actually used. This might be because they’re outdated or because the translations into English are just not culturally familiar.
For example, 你好吗 (nĭhăo ma) is an accurate translation of the common English greeting “How are you?”, but it’s seldom used by Chinese people. In China, you only really ask how someone is if you know them well and are genuinely concerned. Instead, the Chinese tend to ask 你吃了吗 (nǐ chī le ma - have you eaten?) upon meeting.
New China expats are also often told that China is a modest culture and if someone compliments you, you should respond with 哪里哪里 (nǎli nǎli), literally translated as “where, where?”. However, while this humble rejection of praise may score you some Brownie points with the older generation, among the younger crowd it’s a little bit antiquated. Young people in China are more likely to smile and say 谢谢 (xièxiè - thank you) when complimented.
While we’re on the subject of xièxiè, be aware that it’s actually used much less frequently than in the West. In China, there’s no need to thank a service person every time they put a dish on the table or to thank someone on the street for moving out of your way. When you do say thank you, you’ll also typically get a response of 不用谢 (bù yòng xiè), literally “don’t use thanks”. The equivalent word for please, 请 (qǐng), is also not used in the way we use it in the West, so embrace the habit of dropping your ‘Ps’ altogether.
Apologies are, however, forthcoming, even in situations you wouldn’t usually feel the need to apologise for in your home country. You can say 不好意思了（bù hǎo yìsī le), which literally translates to “it’s embarrassing”, if someone praises you, gives you a gift, does you a favor, or you are genuinely embarrassed or sorry.
Family and social hierarchy are also still important, and honorific titles are used and appreciated, especially among the older generation. For example, you may call middle-aged women 阿姨 (āyí - auntie), middle-aged men 叔叔 (shūshu - uncle), older men 老爷爷 (lǎo yéye - granddad) and older women 老奶奶 (lǎo náinai - grandma). You can also call shop and restaurant owners 老板 (lǎobǎn - boss), and taxi drivers 师傅 (shīfu - master). It may feel unfamiliar to our Western mouths, but using such nicknames will help you better understand and assimulate with the local culture.
Here are a few of the most commonly used words and phrases — perhaps the bare minimum you’ll want to learn alongside the numbers.
Pinyin: shì de
Pinyin: bú shì
Mandarin: 随便 / 可以
Pinyin: suíbiàn / kěyǐ
Pinyin: zhēnde ma
See You (when the other person is leaving)
See You (when you are leaving)
(Failing that, “bye bye” is also commonly used in China)
You’ll find many locals will be pretty curious about you and will be keen to ask you questions if they get the chance. This provides a great opportunity for you to practice your spoken Chinese.
Where are you from?
Pinyin: nǐ shì nǎge guójiā de
I am English/ American/ Canadian/ French/ German/ Indian
Mandarin: 我是英国人 / 美国人 / 加拿大人 / 法国人 / 德国人 / 印度人
Pinyin: wǒ shì yīngguó rén / měiguó rén / jiānádà rén / fǎguó rén / déguó rén / yìndù rén
What is your name?
Pinyin: jiào shénme míngzì
What do you do?
Pinyin: zuò shénme de
I'm an English teacher
Pinyin: wǒ shì yīngyǔ lǎoshī
WeChat, 微信 (wēixìn) in Chinese, is a great communication tool for new expats in China. Messages are easily translated (press and hold the text and you'll be given the option to translate), so don’t be surprised if Chinese people who speak little or no English ask to add you.
Add me on WeChat
Pinyin: jiā wǒ wēixìn ba
You may hear people, especially children, shout the word for “foreigner” at you in the street. This happens fairly frequently, even in international cities like Shanghai. China has surprisingly few obvious foreigners, so you may find yourself the centre of attention. The best response to this kind of exclamation, however annoying, is just to smile and wave.
Mandarin: 外国人 / 老外
Pinyin: wàiguó rén / lǎowài
One of the first questions you’ll be asked after where you’re from is if you like China and Chinese food. Personally, I love both!
Do you like China/Chinese food?
Mandarin: 喜欢中国 / 中国菜吗
Pinyin: xǐhuān zhōngguó / zhōngguó cài ma
I really like China/Chinese food
Mandarin: 很喜欢中国 / 中国菜
Pinyin: hěn xǐhuān zhōngguó / zhōngguó cài
Don't be offended if someone asks your age in China or if you’re married/have children. These kind of questions are common here. You’ll also find many Chinese are refreshingly straightforward about making personal remarks, even telling strangers and friends alike that they're old, ugly or fat.
How old are you?
Pinyin: duō dà le
Are you married?
Pinyin: jiéhūn le ma
Do you have children?
Pinyin: yǒu háizi ma?
A lot of shopping is done online in China, mainly with TaoBao or the more sparsely populated translated version BaoPals. But it may take you a while to get a phone, a residence permit, a bank account and AliPay in order to easily order things online, so it’s always best to know some shopping lingo for the real world. Be aware that shopping can be quite a different experience than the lazy procrastinating meander around the mall that you might be used to. Chinese shop attendants are far more attentive and actively encourage you to buy things. Even the Apple Store in Hangzhou gathered quite a crowd of staff to applaud my purchase of an iPad — a far cry from London's snooty Bond Street experience.
Pinyin: duōshǎo qián
I want that one
Pinyin: yào nà gè
I don't want it
Pinyin: bù yào
Do you have … ?
Pinyin: yǒu ... ma
Can you deliver to my address?
Pinyin: néng sòngdào wǒ de dìzhǐ ma
That's too expensive!
Pinyin: tài guì le
Can it be a bit cheaper?
Pinyin: kěyǐ piányì yìdiǎn ma
Can I use WeChat/AliPay/foreign card to pay?
Mandarin: 可以用微信 / 支付宝 / 外国卡付钱吗
Pinyin: kě yǐ yòng wēixìn / zhīfùbǎo / wàiguó kǎ fùqián ma
You’ll probably find you eat out a lot more in China than you can afford to do at home. The local food is varied, good and cheap, so arm yourself with a few key phrases and dive into a culinary adventure.
Table for two
Pinyin: liǎng wèi
Is it spicy/ sweet/ salty?
Mandarin: 这个辣 / 甜 / 咸吗
Pinyin: zhègè là / tián / xián ma
Pinyin: fúwù yuán
I’d like to order
Pinyin: yào diǎncān
I don't eat…
Pinyin: Wǒ bù chī…
I'd like to pay
Pinyin: mǎi dān
Travel & Directions
China is generally very safe, so you can feel confident jumping on and off public transport to get a better feel for your city. Learning these few phrases will help you do just that. Also be sure to download Didi, China’s answer to Uber, and a couple of the bike sharing apps.
Where is the metro?
Pinyin: dìtiě zài nǎlǐ
Long-distance travel across China can all be booked on the trip.com app, which is super convenient and offers an English interface. These days your tickets will typically be issued directly to your phone, but you may need to buy physical tickets from time to time.
Where can I buy a ticket?
Pinyin: nǎlǐ mǎi piào?
I want to buy a ticket to…
Mandarin: 要买去… 的票
Pinyin: yāo mǎi qù … dē piào
Show me your passport / ticket
Mandarin: 给我看你的护照 / 票
Pinyin: gěi wǒ kàn nǐ dē hùzhào / piào
Driver, take me to the airport
Mandarin: 师傅, 带我去机场
Pinyin: shīfu, dài wǒ qù jīchǎng
Please use the meter
Pinyin: yòng jìjiàqì ba
Turn left/ turn right/ go straight on
Mandarin: 左转 / 右转 / 直走
Pinyin: zuǒ zhuǎn/yòu zhuǎn/zhí zǒu
Pinyin: tíng xià
You don’t necessarily need know how to say many Covid-related phrases, but it’ll certainly be useful if you understand some common requests.
Show your health code
Pinyin: chūshì jiànkāng mǎ
Wear a mask
Pinyin: dài kǒuzhào
Can I check your temperature?
Pinyin: cèliàng tǐwēn
You have a fever
Pinyin: fāshāo le
It always pays to have a bit of emergency vocab in your back pocket, in case of… emergencies. It’s also a good idea to store the emergency services numbers for your city in your phone.
Call an ambulance / the police!
Mandarin: 叫救护车 / 警察
Pinyin: jiào jìuhùchē / jǐngchá
I want to see a doctor
Pinyin: yào kàn yīshēng
Please help me
Pinyin: qǐng bāng wǒ
My phone battery is dead
Pinyin: shǒujī méi diàn le
Where’s the bathroom?
Pinyin: cèsuǒ zài nǎli
How to Learn More Chinese
These phrases should get you quite far and will hopefully encourage you to learn more. The most effective way to learn a language is of course by using it as a tool to communicate, building intrinsic motivation and muscle memory. But it's also important to immerse your unconscious mind in the language so you recognise how it ought to sound. Endeavor to have as many tools as possible at your fingertips, including but not limited to:
Above all, enjoy the long journey toward fluency and know that learning Chinese is a process. You’ll get a little bit better year by year, but you’ll need to accept that you'll be making plenty of mistakes along the way. Progress is indeed slow, but as Chinese is an increasingly important language (and you live in China), there are very few downsides to learning at least the basics. 加油 (jiāyóu - go for it!).
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Keywords: new China expats
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