1) I don't understand: Ting bu dong (ting-boo-dong)
In all likelihood you’re going to need this one rather often. It might seem like a negative approach to learn how to convey that you don’t understand before learning something that might help you to do so, but getting across that you haven’t got a clue what’s going on around you and in a way that shows you’re willing is a polite ice-breaking tool to have at your disposal. Baby steps.
2) Hello: Ni hao (nee-how)
Speaking of baby steps, saying hello in the local vernacular will instantly warm people to you, even if for now it’s the only word you know. Again, it shows willing and might well be the first thing that you learn to pronounce with an inkling of local panache.
3) Goodbye: Zai jian (zigh jen)
Much in the same vein as saying ni hao, zai jian is an everyday phrase that’ll leave the right impression as you say your goodbyes. Just bear in mind that if you sound too good saying hello and goodbye, they’ll be waiting to see what else you’ve learnt next time they see you, so brush up on the following seven phrases for good measure.
4) Thank You: Xie xie (shi-eh shi-eh)
You won’t hear too many people saying thank you all that often, but try not to mistake it for rudeness. Customs like saying thank you are considered by some to be a formality that can create an impersonal distance between the two people, especially between friends. Nevertheless it will be understood to be a polite gesture and one that’s well worth knowing.
5) How Are You: Ni hao ma (nee-how-ma)
Albeit rather self-explanatory, being able to ask someone how they are is the first step to a genuine conversation, and goes a lot further in terms of interaction than hi and bye. Interestingly though a great many people you’ll meet will preference the saying ‘ni chifan le ma’, or ‘have you eaten’.
In a country that adores their food and places a great deal of cultural significance on it, the term ‘have you eaten’ is a kindly way of asking whether someone is content and well, rather than an actual enquiry into their dietary status.
6) I’m Sorry: Dui bu qi (dway-boo-chee)
Whether you’re apologising for a cultural faux pas or simply need to have something repeated, understanding how to say that you’re sorry politely is a must. In this context ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘excuse me’ are interchangeable, with ‘dui bu qi’ representing them both.
7) How much money: Duo shao qian? (dwoh shao chee-ahn)
The art of negotiation is an important part of the Chinese way of life and can often extend much further than the market salesman or street vendor. Be prepared to say when you think something is too expensive (Bonus phrase: ‘Tai gui le’ or ‘too expensive’) and you’ll likely get a bartered price. Obviously to make this a little more effective you should take the time to refresh yourself on the first 10 Chinese numbers, but for a truly immersive feel and a slight shortcut to reasonably priced goods check out our partner infographic article on how the Chinese count to ten on one hand.
8) Saying yes or no
Travelling to a foreign country always has its own share of complications but saying yes or no isn’t usually one of them. The country of the red dragon however is a little different. Unfortunately for tourists looking for a shortcut to show something as simple as agreement and disagreement, in China it isn’t customary to say yes or no, instead they show approval or disapproval by repeating the verb in the positive or negative: Do you want a drink? I want. Do you need to sit down? I don’t need.
Despite our desire to be helpful here the best we can do is suggest you listen as carefully as possible and bear in mind that to make a verb negative, simply precede it with ‘bu’. So to say I want is ‘Wǒ xiǎng’, while to say I don’t want is simply ‘Wǒ bùxiǎng’. Good luck!
9) Server: Fu wu yuan (foo yoo-an)
Another cultural difference that might take some initial getting used to is restaurant etiquette. In short, if you plan on waiting patiently for your server to come to your table of their own fruition then you’ll likely go hungry. To get a servers attention it is quite acceptable to simply call them by their job title, no one will be offended and you not go hungry.
10) Bring Me The Bill: Mai dan (my dahn)
Rather self-explanatory but nevertheless important, when you’re finished you’ll need to alert the waiter or waitress that you’d like the bill otherwise they are likely to assume that you’re content to let your food settle where you are.
11) Where is the bathroom: Ce suo zai na er (ts-eh sw-ah ts-eye nar)
The realities of travelling are probably best felt when searching desperately for a bathroom without the ability to convey to anyone that this is why you are rushing around aimlessly. It might be one of the harder phrases to pronounce correctly on this list, but take heed and memorize this one as it could be a real life-saver. You have been warned.
Along with the above, it’s wise to buy an international SIM card with affordable data bundles / plans to help you search for the right phrases and strike up a conversation with the locals.