Not all of us can speak the language, but there are Chinese words that you may want to be familiar with in case you wake up one day and you find yourself the Middle Kingdom. I do not speak fluent Mandarin Chinese but I studied the language from 2009 to 2010 and it made me understand Chinese culture and society. By twist of fate, I am again based in China this year following a big family move. I am now brushing up on my language skill and it’s surprising how the words and expressions I learned from school come back when I interact with the taxi driver, the cleaners or the sales girl. Based on interaction with foreigners and locals, I listed seven Chinese words and expressions, which you may find helpful when traveling to China or communicating to a Chinese:
Sounds like: sye-sye
When saying “thank you” to someone, say "xièxie” Saying thank you is common in China and you hear it everywhere. My husband has been living in China in the last two years and he only knows maybe 10 Chinese words. Xièxie is one expression he already mastered. However, please note that normally, Xièxie is not to be used when you receive compliments. It is not the Chinese way to respond to a compliment although the younger generation now replies “Xièxie” to a compliment. For example, if someone tells you that you are beautiful, do not say “Xiexie” or you might come out boastful or arrogant. Say “Năli Năli” (nah lee, nah lee) which is like saying, “It’s nothing really.” It’s a humble way to return the compliment. Humility is an important value for the Chinese hence, the nature of the response.
Sounds like: twey-boo-chi
It means “sorry.” There is another Chinese expression “bùhǎo yì si” (boo-haw-yee-seh) which can also mean “sorry” or “I am embarrassed.” They are used interchangeably and as a student, I used to be confused of these two. My first Chinese teacher told me: “We always use duì buqĭ when we did something wrong or bad to other people.” She told me that bùhǎo yì si means “I am embarrassed” or you did something embarrassing to other people. Duì buqĭ is normally use in formal situation or with someone of higher authority. For example, you say “duì buqĭ” when you spilled water on your manager. Bùhǎo yì si can be use casually. Take the situation when you spilled water on your best friend’s shirt. You can say, “Bùhǎo yì si.” Your friend won’t dismiss you from being her friend if you spilled water on her, right? As for your manager, hmm…
Sounds like: mey-gwan-shee
When people say “duì buqĭ” or “bùhǎo yì si,” and you are feeling alright – no injuries, no harm done, no hard feelings – you reply: “Méi guānxi.” It means that you are okay and it’s no problem at all. “Méi” in Méi guānxi actually means “no,” so if you don't feel good after the person said sorry, you can say “ yóu guānxi” (you pronounced as “yow” means have). Of course, saying “yóu guānxi” rarely happens.
Sounds like: nee-haw
Nǐ hǎo is the ultimate Chinese greeting. Nǐ means “you” and hǎo means “good” so it is essentially wishing the person you are saying “Nǐ hǎo” to goodwill or a good day. This is the most common Chinese expression/greeting that people learn because it is easy to remember and it is short. When I first learned Chinese, I usually forget words and grammar rules so in times of distress, I say “Nǐ hǎo” with a big grin. It never fails to save the day.
Sounds like: ting-boo-tong
When cleaners come to my apartment and they speak to me and I answer with my rustic Chinese skill, they are so amused that they start talking to me in a manner that makes me want to grab a life jacket because I am drowning in… words. When this happens, I shout for timeout by saying “tīng bù dǒng.” It means “I do not understand” but literally it means “I hear you but I cannot understand.” Practice these three words, folks. To know if that person can speak English, you can ask: “Nǐ huì shuō Yīngwén ma?” Here is your pronunciation guide: Nee-whay shwo-ing-wen-ma?
Sounds like: dwo-shao-tyan
This is very useful when you go shopping in China especially in open air markets with cheap goods. It’s actually a question that means “How much is this?” Vendors reply immediately. It pays if you know the numbers in Chinese. Start with one to 10. But if you don’t the numbers in Chinese, you can ask the vendor to write it down. They usually have calculators and they just punch in the price in them. It happens every time. Trust me.
Sounds like: pyan-yee-yee-dyar-ba
This is a line that will help you get discounts when shopping. Say this after you know the price of the thing that you want to buy. It literally means, “Please make the price lower.” The Chinese vendor will normally grunt in disgust or disappointment, but be brave. Persist and you will be rewarded. This is my go-to phrase every time I go around shopping malls and open air markets and for most of the time, it helps! Even when you can only ask for five RMB discount, hey, that’s an achievement! Every little bit counts.
Much of my fascination about China is directed towards it language. It is complex but it speaks so much about art, culture and heritage. What do you think about Mandarin Chinese?
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