It is almost impossible to learn Mandarin without lots of practice with a native Chinese person, but taking that first step to actual have that first conversation can feel like a daunting challenge.
While Chinese native speakers aren’t so scary, and most will be more than happy to chat with a foreigner, it is never a bad idea to do some research on how to break the ice first.
Understanding what you should talk about and what should not be brought up will not only help avoid moments of awkwardness, but will also make for a better foundation for a longer-term language exchange.
If you have no previous experience with breaking the ice with Chinese people, there’s no need to worry! Below are some guidelines and some useful tips!
What should I talk about?
Get to know your partner
The best way to break the ice is by taking the opportunity to get to know your partner! Start with some basic questions like “你叫什么名字？What’s your name?” and “你是哪儿人？Which part of China are you from?”. As long as you are not asking about their salary, their problems, or anything else that is too personal, Chinese people will talk with you. You may be surprised to find that you actually share quite a lot of things in common with them even though you are from completely different cultures.
Knowing something about different parts China beforehand is more helpful than you might think, as the culture differs greatly from region to region. The northern and southern parts of China, for instance, are very different from each other! People from different regions speak different dialects, eat differently, have different attitudes…China is massive so don’t assume everyone is the same! Be particularly careful and check if your Chinese speaker is actually from China, rather than another Chinese-speaking region (more on that later)!
You may already know how important food is to Chinese people; even if you know very little about the culture, you’ll certainly know some famous Chinese dishes, such as Tantanmien or Xiaolongbao. Besides “你好, Nǐ Hǎo” (“hello”), Chinese people like to greet each other with phrases like “Have you had your meal already?” (你吃了吗nǐ chī le ma). This may sound weird to Western ears, but it’s a totally normal thing to say in China. There is a saying in Chinese: “Food is the most important thing to people (民以食为天, mín yǐshíwéi tiān).”
Since, China is a vast country with a long and complex history: this only serves to make its food varieties highly varied. But this shouldn’t be too much of a problem for you. It is safe to say that trying all the different types of Chinese food is an impossible task, so you can feel sure you will learn something about the cuisine from your language exchange partner. Or, you can just talk to your Chinese friends about those dishes you are most familiar with, like hotpot and Beijing duck. They will be thrilled – and you will both end up feeling very hungry, too!
Chinese pop culture is no. 1
If you are talking to someone from the younger generation, pop culture is definitely something you should mention. You can talk about celebrities who are well-known (but less controversial) like Jay Chou or Eason Chen. You don’t really have to know them well, just a few of their names will be enough to start an interesting conversation.
Another fun thing to do is to ask your Chinese friends to show you some pictures of celebrities they think are good-looking and compare each other’s opinions. This is the main topic of quite a lot of YouTube channels in China!
Mobile games are now also really popular among young people in China. Trust me, if you are chatting with a young Chinese person, he/she must have played or at least be familiar with mobile games like “王者荣耀 (wáng zhě róng yào)” or “阴阳师 (yīn yáng shī)”. These are currently the two hottest mobile games in China. If you are interested enough, you can even play together with them and find out why those games are so interesting to so many people!
Some entertainment shows are now super popular on Chinese social media, such as “Rap of China” (中国有嘻哈, zhōng guó yǒu xī hā). If you happen to be a super big fan of hip-hop music, try watching some episodes and starting a conversation with your Chinese friends on how you feel about the show!
What topics should be avoided?
Anything your own culture would find offensive!
This shouldn’t need too much explanation. Anything rude, flirty, or unacceptable in most other cultures should be avoided; and besides that, be aware that you are talking to people from a culture which values manners very highly. So make sure you know your partner well before you try making a risqué joke!
Really think well before you talk about complex political topics; for example, China’s stance on Tibet or Taiwan. Whatever your own opinions, this is never a good ice-breaker. Besides running the risk of really offending people, also consider that these issues have a very complex historical and political background, and most Chinese people often struggle to understand and explain it clearly. Asking why Facebook and Google are blocked is not a very good question either, also for the same reasons. Think about it – would you really begin a conversation with someone from your own culture by demanding an explanation of a highly controversial political topic?
What else should you prepare?
Your Chinese name!
Much like how Chinese people often choose a new name when they learn a foreign language, it would also be super cool to introduce yourself by telling them your chosen Chinese name and the story behind it! Check our previous article about how to get yourself a very own Chinese name! This is sure to impress anyone at the beginning of your conversation!
Basic Chinese greetings!
Learn at least how to say “hi” in Chinese, like “你好, nǐ hǎo”. Good command of simple and daily expressions like “谢谢, xiè xiè” (thank you), “再见, zài jiàn” (goodbye)or “晚安, wǎn ān” (goodnight) is also helpful in making your Chinese friend feel your sincerity and willingness to learn more about Chinese language and culture.
In the end, breaking the ice to start conversations with native Chinese speakers can be a fun and interesting way to not only learn the language and culture, but to make new friends and to develop good relationships with other people. Good luck, and have fun while learning!