Essential Mandarin Phrases for New China Expats

Essential Mandarin Phrases for New China Expats
Mar 09, 2021 By Ben Evans ,

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.

Essential Mandarin Phrases for New China Expats
Source:  Road Trip with Raj 

Getting Started

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.

Common Expressions

Here are a few of the most commonly used words and phrases — perhaps the bare minimum you’ll want to learn alongside the numbers.

Mandarin: 你好
Pinyin: nǐhǎo

Mandarin: 是的
Pinyin: shì de

Mandarin: 不是
Pinyin: bú shì

Whatever/Can (ok)
Mandarin: 随便 / 可以
Pinyin: suíbiàn / kěyǐ

Mandarin: 真的吗
Pinyin: zhēnde ma

See You (when the other person is leaving)
Mandarin: 慢走
Pinyin: mànzǒu

See You (when you are leaving)
Mandarin: 再见
Pinyin: zàijiàn
(Failing that, “bye bye” is also commonly used in China)

Meeting People

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?
Mandarin: 你是哪个国家的
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?
Mandarin: 叫什么名字
Pinyin: jiào shénme míngzì

What do you do?
Mandarin: 做什么的
Pinyin: zuò shénme de

I'm an English teacher
Mandarin: 我是英语老师
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
Mandarin: 加我微信吧
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?
Mandarin: 结婚了吗
Pinyin: jiéhūn le ma

Do you have children?
Mandarin: 有孩子吗
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.

How much?
Mandarin: 多少钱
Pinyin: duōshǎo qián

I want that one
Mandarin: 要那个
Pinyin: yào nà gè

I don't want it
Mandarin: 不要
Pinyin: bù yào

Do you have … ?
Mandarin: 有...吗
Pinyin: yǒu ... ma

Can you deliver to my address?
Mandarin: 能送到我的地址吗
Pinyin: néng sòngdào wǒ de dìzhǐ ma

That's too expensive!
Mandarin: 太贵了
Pinyin: tài guì le

Can it be a bit cheaper?
Mandarin: 可以便宜一点吗
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

Eating Out

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
Mandarin: 两位
Pinyin: liǎng wèi

Is it spicy/ sweet/ salty?
Mandarin: 这个辣 / 甜 / 咸吗  
Pinyin: zhègè là / tián / xián ma

Mandarin: 服务员
Pinyin: fúwù yuán

I’d like to order
Mandarin: 要点餐
Pinyin: yào diǎncān

Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or have an allergy, you may need to tell wait staff that there are some things you don’t eat.

I don't eat…
Mandarin: 我不吃...
Pinyin: Wǒ bù chī…

I'd like to pay
Mandarin: 买单
Pinyin: mǎi dān   
Mandarin: 好吃
Pinyin: hǎochī  

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?
Mandarin: 地铁在哪里
Pinyin: dìtiě zài nǎlǐ

Long-distance travel across China can all be booked on the 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?
Mandarin: 哪里买票?
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
Mandarin: 用计价器吧
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

Stop here
Mandarin: 停下
Pinyin: tíng xià

Covid-19 vocabulary

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
Mandarin: 出示健康吗
Pinyin: chūshì jiànkāng mǎ

Wear a mask
Mandarin: 带口罩
Pinyin: dài kǒuzhào

Can I check your temperature?
Mandarin: 测量体温
Pinyin: cèliàng tǐwēn

You have a fever
Mandarin: 发烧了
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
Mandarin: 要看医生    
Pinyin: yào kàn yīshēng

Please help me
Mandarin:  请帮我
Pinyin: qǐng bāng wǒ

My phone battery is dead
Mandarin: 手机没电了
Pinyin: shǒujī méi diàn le

Where’s the bathroom?
Mandarin: 厕所在哪里
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:

-Language partners
-Formal language courses

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!).

Warning:The use of any news and articles published on without written permission from constitutes copyright infringement, and legal action can be taken.

Keywords: new China expats


All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.



That feeling when I try to say something a thousand times, but the Chinese still don't understand me

Apr 08, 2021 04:37 Report Abuse



got it

Mar 12, 2021 15:28 Report Abuse