Mandarin You Need that You Can’t Find in a Textbook

1As an English teacher in the Guandong province for the last five weeks, I’ve noticed many things in my daily conversations that none of the Chinese textbooks I studied from prepared me for.  Real conversation with people here in China definitely does not follow all the patterns in the textbook and the best resources out there cannot take al cultural nuances into account. Here are some useful things to know about real Chinese conversation:

1) Learn more than just your country’s name

It is important to know how to talk about some interesting facts regarding one’s country. All foreigners are asked about the length of their journey, and many basic cost of living questions. Money is a much more casual and open topic in China. If you really do not want to answer, you can always feign ignorance. Here are some useful phrases to know and the questions to look out for:

Q1: How long did it take you to get here?
nǐ lái zhōng guó yào huā duō cháng shí jiān

A: It took about _______ hours by airplane.
zuò fēi jī yào huā ______ xiǎo shí

Q2: How much does it cost to live in your hometown for a month?
zài nǐ jiā xiāng, yí gè yuè yào huā duō shǎo qián

A: The cost of living for one month is about _______.
yí gè yuè yào huā _______ měi yuán

Q3: How much does a plane ticket cost?
jī piào yào huā duō shǎo qián?

A: A plane ticket costs around _________.
jī piào dà gài yào ______ měi yuán

2) Don’t be afraid to pull out your dictionary/translation app in the middle of conversation

Usually this works in your favor since the people you are conversing with appreciate your drive to push the conversation forward. They are also usually fascinated by the app and the way you have managed to beat the language barrier being the technologically savvy Ninja that you are. I recommend Pleco as the app of choice. Here’s how to express your desire to use the dictionary:

I don`t understand, let`s look at the dictionary.
wǒ bù dǒng, wǒ men kàn yí xià zì diǎn ba

3) Point out your poor Chinese on days when you feel bad about it

2If you have days where you feel hopeless despite your best attempts, just point out your poor Chinese publicly. Most people will quickly reassure you that you sound great; that you will improve fast, and that they are extremely happy that you are trying. The following phrase works like magic for the much needed boost:

My Chinese is too bad, sorry.
wǒ de zhōng wén tài chà le, bù hǎo yì si

4) Food is serious business

Find out the common local food/cultural food habits and bring gifts everywhere to impress your counterparts. Furthermore, it is always better to try a little and then stop instead of outrightly refusing something because this often ends with it being forced upon you.

5) We don’t actually ever ask你好吗 (nǐ hǎo ma)?” here!

It took me a while to figure it out but whenever I would ask “你好吗?” or “你怎么样?”, I received blank stares in return. Soon, I noticed that in China, it is much more common to ask questions like “你吃饭了没有?(Did you eat?)” and“你去哪里?(Where are you going?)”. The idea is to say something directly related to the actual things happening in the other person’s life. While this sounds absurd and slightly intrusive if translated, it is equally absurd to most Chinese people to be asked “你好吗? (How are you?)” or “你怎么样? (How are you doing?)”.

Now, do you have any useful phrases or sentences used on real Chinese conversation?  just share to us.

Dhruv Chatterjee

Dhruv Chatterjee is currently in his third year in China. After spending two years as an English and Music teacher in a small village in Guangdong, he has spent the last year living and working in Shanghai. He enjoys writing, Chinese, music and exploring all the wonderful things Shanghai has to offer.

  • Prachi Tyagi

    I cant imagine what it must be like living in a small town in China!
    A very interesting article! I blog about my experiences in China as well, check it out when you can:

    • Dhruv Chatterjee

      Definitely different to the Beijing life but probably as much of learning experience. Really liked what I’ve seen of your blog so far: Oddly enough, I’ve been to some obscurer places here (and live in one) but not Beijing or Shanghai yet!

  • Gurnoor Kaur Sekhon

    You’re the first person who is an Indian national that I ever heard who is actually interested in China! Do you know how happy this makes me? (I am an American national who studied in India during my teen years.) I’m so glad to have heard from an /Indian/ who is interested in Mandarin as well! Rock on!

    • Dhruv Chatterjee

      Hey Gurnoor,

      That’s awesome that you are interested too. Do you plan to use your language skills to head here eventually?