Totally fluent. Mum will be so proud.
I am in China and I can’t speak Chinese.
It’s an interesting conundrum, being in a country where you can’t speak the native language. It gives you a couple of perspectives on life, certainly. Have you ever had a passing thought about someone moving into your country without being able to speak a word of the native language? Have you ever wondered why some of our words and phrases exist as they are, like going cold turkey or being on the ball? But moving life philosophy and sociological ponders aside, there is a practical aspect one is missing when one can’t converse the common tongue. Ordering the right kind of ice-cream for example.
Below are a few phrases that I have happened to learn during my relatively short time in China.
Shénme – 什么
I feel this one is more useful to know for listening rather that speaking. Often I might hear ‘shénme’ after my attempts at engaging a fellow Chinese person in Mandarin.
Wǒ bù míngbái – 我不明白
Meaning: I don’t understand.
This is a common expression for I don’t understand. Sometimes when I forget this phrase I’ll use wǒ bù dǒng which roughly means the same thing. Very useful for disappointing curious neighbours, passersby and your local Didi driver.
Nǐ hǎo – 你好
We all know this phrase but do we know it’s literal meaning? It turns out this literally means ‘you good’ without the question mark. (add ma to actually make it a question) Also, I don’t hear this often. Doesn’t stop me from trying to use it with fellow neighbours though.
Wǒ xǐ huān / Wǒ bù xǐ huān – 我喜欢 / 我不喜欢
Meaning: I like / I don’t like
I am lucky enough to get along very well with my fellow Chinese colleagues, or so I thought. I would sometimes try to use the limited Chinese I knew to socialise with them during break times, for example using ‘Wǒ xǐ huān’ to compliment a nice shirt or jacket. But then they offered me what I thought was mango cake. It was odd, at the same time a strong stench struck my face and I told the teachers I thought I smelt a gas leak. They laughed and didn’t seemed concerned. Alright then… I scooped up some cake and… Ah.
Do not underestimate the power of durian.
And the usefulness of ‘Wǒ bù xǐ huān’ which I use in a hurry anytime I’m offered suspicious smelling foods.
Duì / Bù Duì – 对 / 不对
Meaning: Correct / Incorrect
When you are in a foreign country, you may come to realise that sometimes it’s most convenient for you and your fellow Chinese local to pretend you know what’s going on. Sometimes, you have to leave the desire to understand everything in front of you and go with the flow. And once you’ve mastered that, then you can play this fun lottery game called duì or bù duì. This is when you aim to either keep the conversation going or finish it, interchanging between the two phrases depending on your end goal.
Téng – 疼
Injuries happen, and for inexperienced humans it could be quite a big shock when you fall on your face or when you drop a plate on your little toe. While I try to always use English for my students, when injuries occur I need to know if there’s a potential for them to be serious and require a school doctor. Téng is useful for this, because it’s a common word for pain and I hear my students use this a lot. We’ll get to learn about the use of ‘ouch’ and ‘my head hurts’ soon, but I don’t want to give upset (and sometimes very shy) students an English lesson before getting seen to!
Char sui bao – 叉烧包
Meaning: BBQ Pork (Steamed) Dumpling
Famous in the Guangdong district, if you enjoy eating BBQ flavoured pork encased with the fluffy delight of a perfectly steamed dumpling for 3 yuan… Then this phrase is essential. I use it often.
Miànbāo – 面包
Useful if you like toast in the morning.
Shuǐguǒ – 水果
Useful if you like to pretend to be healthy in the morning.
Duìbùqǐ – 对不起
Meaning: I am sorry
It was not mentioned earlier that during ‘Nǐ hǎo ma’ you could accidentally say “You good horse” if you use the wrong tones. But don’t worry, help is at hand. If your minimal Chinese may have inadvertently caused offence or you are receiving a call from a Didi driver who you cannot understand just use duìbùqǐ. For extra points, tell them what country you’re from, so they know in advance to be disappointed when meeting other ignorant foreigners.
Cǎoméi chá – 草莓茶
Meaning: Strawberry Tea
I love this stuff and you can find funky fruit teas all over the Guangdong district of China. They are often very different to western fruit teas and are full of flavour and fruit. It’s also one of the few drinks I can successfully order…
Kwai / Kuai / Quai
Meaning: Quid / Unit of money
Many Chinese people refer to money as ‘yuan’, but others use ‘kwai / kuai / quai’ depending on their location and depending on how it’s actually meant to be spelled. (Because I have no idea) It’s useful to know so when someone goes up to you demanding money you can understand.
So now you know my commonly used phrases. Do you travel? What are your favourite phrases for abroad?