I laugh now when I look back at the time I spent during my 18 hour plane ride staring at my Mandarin Chinese phrasebook and the sentences the book told me I should learn. No matter what the language, the first words travelers always try to drill into their heads are complicated conversational pleasantries: “My name is Alison, how are you?”  “It is nice to meet you” “How do you say [word] in Chinese?” “Can you please call a cab.”

This is all baloney and really pretty useless …. not to mention difficult to retain when you’re not in a classroom setting.

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language means you should forget pleasantries (at least conversational ones) and first learn how to communicate basic needs. When I picked Derrick (my boyfriend) up at the airport and he recited the phrases he’d memorized, which included, “how are you?” “my name is”, and “have a nice day.”  I smiled at the sincere effort but promptly laughed.

“You will never use these,” I said.

Several weeks into my stay, I quickly realized  I’d never be fluent within two months. The easiest thing to do was learn key words so I could successfully get places by myself, buy things and eat (all important). My friends who spoke Chinese were invaluable but I can’t expect to rely on them all the time.

Before I provide my list of words, my first big lesson:

Get with the century, don’t buy a stupid (and $$$) phrasebook. Get a phone app.

I haven’t touched my tiny Lonely Planet phrasebook since my first week. In fact, its likely buried under clothes and empty water bottles in my bedroom at this very moment. Instead, I downloaded Pleco, which is a Chinese phone app dictionary a friend recommended. It’s a heaven-send, especially when you’re not used to the pinyin pronounciations. Q= ch, zh = j and x = sh — it’s all confusing at first. o_O

Pleco allows you to bookmark certain words and has a speaker option so you can hear the word. The speaker option is also handy when it’s late at night, you’re exhausted, and instead of struggling to tell the taxi driver where to turn, you put the speaker in his face and play “turn left”. He might give you a weird look but it works. (True story).

Pleco also has Chinese characters, which is handy.

Here are some important words I use all the time. Daily.  Seriously, at least 20 times a day….each!

“No”, “that” and “thank you”

Bú shì = No   [Pro: Bu-She]  I use this all the time, especially when I’m  bombarded by hagglers at the Great Wall trying to sell me overpriced stuff or rickshaw drivers. Someone once told me to think of George W. Bush  and I’ve never forgotten it since.

 Nàge = that    This is weird for many English speakers. It’s pronounced aaalmost like the derogatory word for a black person (I’m sorry, it’s true) but more of an “uh” at the end than an “er”.  [Pro: Neg-Uh] Despite the unfortunate similarities this word has with its English meaning, it’s proven essential to communicating what I need in a variety of circumstances. One of the most frequent places I use this is when ordering at a restaurant and I can point and say “ge” or when picking out a food item from a vendor.

Xiè xie = Thanks  [Pro: Shi-shi] The approximate pronunciation is a little harder to convey without uploading an audio file but if I said this, I think my gratitude would come across. I feel like whenever I travel abroad I’m always saying thank you — and I suppose it’s a sort of sympathetic gesture to whatever Chinese speaker had to put up with my botched Chinese speech.

Nǐ hǎo = Hello   I do notice people don’t say nihao when they answer the phone. Instead, they say “Wei” [Pro: Way]. I’m guessing it’s an informal hello. Like ‘Hi!”

Duōshǎo qián = How much does this cost? [Pro: Duh-sh-ow Ch-e-en]   Often when I’m out touristing I need water or tea from a vendor. This is very helpful and my next recommendation helps me understand how much that water actually costs.

"How much does this cost?"
“How much does this cost?”

Count to 10

Learning to count to 10 is one of the most important things I’ve learned while I’m here. Also, the way the Chinese numerical system works, that’s all you need to learn (!!) My knowledge of 1-10 helps tell waiters how many people will be at a table and how many dishes we’ve ordered. It also helps when buying water or food from a vendor who can tell you that water is “er” (2) yuan. Or that you’d like “ba xiaolongbao” (eight steamed dumplings).

1= yi [Pro: e]     2 = er [Pro: “r”]   3=san   4 = si  5=wu  

6 =liu     7= qi [Pro: chee]   8=ba  9= jiu [Pro: Joe]   10 = shi

Count to 10 (hand signals)

Handsignals are different here.  Rather than write about how different they are, I’m using a nicely put together photograph from another blog I found. (The blogger has her own anecdote about grocery shopping in China that’s pretty funny.)

Nabbed this from Thought Ripples blog. I've linked to it above
Nabbed this from Thought Ripples blog. I’ve linked to it above

Currency terms

Surprise, we’ve been pronouncing “yuan” wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t say we, but I’m pretty sure if I’ve been saying it wrong, there’s others who’ve been misled, too. If you read “yuan” and think its pronounced the same as “Juan Williams” —  you’re wrong.  Yuan, essentially the $1 of Chinese currency, is pronounced “yen.” It’s also called Renminbi (RMB).

Kuai = the same thing as yuan. Hanging around expats the first few weeks in China I always heard them say things like “Yeah, our taxi to the railway was 40 kuai” or “During happy hour one drink was only 5 kuai.” I was so confused. Was there a different form of currency I overlooked? What was this kuai? Finally, I figured out that it means the same thing as yuan but for some reason expats prefer using “kuai.” I don’t know why, but I’ve since succumbed to this fad.

Common food terms

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time eating in China, which is likely telling by the fact most of the words I know are food-related. Here’s some common food terms that are useful to know and that you’ll likely eat a lot.

Nǎi chá = milk tea. It’s kind of like chai tea, but not as spicy. I LOVE this and drink it a few times a week.

Jī ròu = chicken

Dòufu = tofu

Niú ròu = beef

Zhūròu = pork (this is hard for me because “zh” makes a j sound — think the sound the g makes in “gem”)

Xialongbao = steamed dumpling

Jiǎo zi = dumpling (stuffed with meat and veggies) These are cooked not boiled

Shuǐ = water

Píjiǔ = beer    Beijing summers are fairly hot and there’s no better way to escape the heat or the choking smog like grabbing some píjiǔ with friends.
Mǎi dān = Restaurant bill [Pro: My-Don]

"Maidan" makes dumplings that much tastier!
Knowing the difference between pork and beef  makes dumplings that much tastier!

This was a HUGE success when I mastered this word. Going out to eat is a very different experience than in America. Tipping isn’t a part of restaurant etiquette so there are no clingy waiters swinging by your table to ask how the meal is before you’ve even had a bite. I personally like this style — I just want to be left to my company and my food and don’t need to be entertained. That said, you have to call a staff member over when you want to order food and that also includes when you want the check.


WIFI: It’s tough learning — and properly using — new words to communicate, but here’s one word that’s the same in English and Chinese. Obviously it looks different in Chinese characters but restaurants and cafes usually have the pinyin “wifi” or if you go up to someone and say “wifi” they will at least understand what that means.

DISCLAIMER: This is by no means *the* definitive list of words to know before coming to China. But these are all things I’ve picked up so far during my time and maybe if I’d had a better grasp on them I would have struggled less in the beginning.

If you’ve traveled to China and can think of other important words that you used often, feel free to add the suggestion in the comments.

One thought on “The *Real* Guide to Survival Chinese

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