You’re going to China. You’re going to China, and you don’t know a single word of Chinese. You’re not alone. I also moved to Beijing without knowing any Chinese words. I actually have more experience in Japanese than I do in Chinese, but I’m not letting that stop me. I’ve been here a month, and I’ve picked up on a few Chinese words that have helped me adapt in my new lovely, but a strange environment that I now call home.
Learn how to count! That’s one of the first things anyone learning a language learns to do, but learning the Chinese alphabet, well that’ll take you a long time. But learning how to count using Chinese words, is vital. It has helped me on some occasions, from grocery shopping to putting money on my Metro card. It’ll also be helpful if you found someone to teach you how to count on with your hands. Yes, they count with their fingers differently here, and it should come in handy if you’re not comfortable with the numbers yet.
1: yī, as in Ye old Renaissance fair
2: èr, like Captain Jack Sparrow, arr.
3: sān, as ‘sun’
4: sì, like the ‘ts’ in ‘suits’
5: wǔ, the ‘wo’ in ‘woods’
6: liù, almost like Leo
7: qī, it puts the ‘chee’ in ‘cheese’
8: bā, easy like Mary’s little lamb. Baa
9: jiǔ, as if Joe did something terrible.
10: shí, say it like you’re about to say a certain word, then you realize your grandma is in the room.
This one is an obvious one, and probably the only Chinese word a lot of foreigners know. Nǐ hǎo will get you a polite smile of shock if you greet a Chinese local with the correct pronunciation. The accent mark for this Chinese word is like a small pitch roller coaster, just don’t go overboard. It’s pronounced as “knee how” but the ‘ee’ and ‘ow’ sound quickly dips and picks back up. It’s easier to understand if you use your hands to draw a ‘v’ in the air and match your pitch with it.
Knowing how to say nǐ hǎo, is just textbook knowledge. You should always know how to say hello in the language of the country you’re visiting. Nǐ hǎo counts as a ‘hello’ and a ‘how are you?’. So keep this in your Chinese word bank and greet cashiers and your local friends with
Another obvious one, your mother didn’t raise you to be rude, you should always know how to thank someone. And it’s no different being in another country. I’ve noticed they don’t say it as much, or maybe Chinese locals say it so fast that I never catch it. Once you do get the hang of saying xiè xie, you do tend to say it quickly and with ease.
The pronunciation is combining ‘she’ and ‘yeah’ together. Mash the two words together, and you’ll get xiè xie. Be polite when you’re buying something from street vendors, or if someone gives you something. Being polite goes a long way, especially if you’re living in China. I’ve received a few surprised looks, and reply with, “bù kè qi,” which is ‘you’re welcome.’
Or duì,duì,duì. This one is more for you to feel like you’re part of the group. I’ve been hanging out with a handful of Beijing locals, and they throw this word around in conversations. It’s like saying “yeah, yeah, yeah.” when you’re talking to your friends. I picked up on this one within the first week because I had to ask one of the new Chinese friends what it meant. Every language has their form of casual speech that you won’t learn in language books, and this is one of them.
When you hear it, it sounds like someone is saying ‘dewy’ very fast. I used duì, once in conversation and got laughed it. It wasn’t an evil laugh, like ‘look at this fool,’ it was more of a surprise. They weren’t expecting me to pick up on the words so quickly and understand how to use them.
No! The Chinese people aren’t racist, and they have no knowledge of the n-word. I include this word on this list just as a warning, so you don’t think people are walking around dropping n-word so casually. This also isn’t something you can say while speaking English and Chinese together, like Spanglish. Nèige is used as ‘umm,’ when someone is trying to think of the name of something. Like when Westerners say ‘whatchamacallit’ or ‘you know, you know’ when the name is on the tip of your tongue.
A lot of Westerners come to China and hear this words and automatically think the Chinese are racist. This is a Chinese word and has no connection to the other foul one. Get used to it, because you’ll hear it a lot.
I hope these Chinese words help you out on your journey. While you are in China, take some time to learn the language. It’s difficult, but you’ll get used to it if you practice and use efficient mobile apps to brush up on your Chinese skills.