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.
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.
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.”
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. 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.
5. Your Nationality
Probably 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.
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.
7. Numbers 1-10
I was really super proud of myself when I first learned my numbers in Mandarin. I felt like I had conquered the world!
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).
8. Zhe ge (“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 zhe ge.
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 weapon
I 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.
Address: 21F, 319 Changde Road (corner of West Beijing Road)
Closest metro: Line 2/7 Jing’an Temple, Exit 3/10,
A 5 min walk away
Learn Mandarin / Chinese
Learn Chinese in Shanghai / at Miracle Mandarin