You’re just as likely to hear “Ni Hao” as “Hello” in my home. After living in China for five and a half years, I returned to the US with a Chinese husband, the fluency to be a freelance Chinese translator, and a heaping rice bowl of expressions in Mandarin.
If you’re traveling to China and looking to dig your own linguistic chopsticks into Chinese culture, I recommend these 10 extraordinarily useful phrases.
1. Nǐ zhēn niú!
In China, you can actually compare someone to a cow (niú) to compliment his outstanding character. Yao Ming is definitely niú, and so is anyone who scores you train tickets after they’re “sold out” or tries the baijiu liquor sold in plastic squeeze bottles in grocery stores.
2. Yìqǐ chīfàn, wǒ qǐngkè.
“Let’s go out to eat, my treat.”
In China, eating together is how people build and maintain good relationships. So if you want to make a new friend, ask a favor, or thank someone, do it as the Chinese do — over a lunch or dinner on your Chinese yuan.
3. Méi bànfǎ, rén tàiduō.
“There’s nothing you can do, too many people.”
In a country of 1.3 billion people, it only takes a small percentage of them to wreck your trip. When my Chinese husband and I traveled to Beijing during the national holiday in October, we spent half the day slogging through a mob that stretched across Tian’anmen Square just to get into the Forbidden City. I’ve also had to stand on crowded trains because I couldn’t get a seat and, while living in Shanghai, experienced my share of being sandwiched between anonymous butts and groins on rush-hour subway cars.
4. Nǎlǐ, nǎlǐ!
“Not me!” (lit. “where, where!” — for deflecting compliments)
Confucian values — such as modesty — still run strong in China, so people don’t say “thank you” when praised about anything. The Chinese, however, assume foreigners like you do the opposite. This phrase is guaranteed to surprise your new Chinese friends and get a good smile out of them.
5. Yǒu yuán qiānlǐ lái xiānghuì.
“We have the destiny to meet across a thousand miles.”
Chinese people believe love and destiny go hand in hand – which is why my Chinese husband loves describing our relationship with this phrase. It’s best for romantic situations, and could even be a poetic pickup line.
6. Wā! Zhōngguó de biànhuà hǎo dà! Zhēnshì fāntiān fùdì!
“Whoa! China is changing so much! It’s as if heaven and earth changed places!”
Shanghai’s Pudong District, with a skyline straight out of a science-fiction flick, used to be rural farmland before the 1990s. Until the 1980s, the high-rise miracle of Shenzhen was just another tiny village on the South China Sea known for fresh fish and oysters.
Every year, China races to build more bridges, buildings, high-speed train lines and subway routes, changing the landscape faster than a speeding Beijing taxi driver. This expression is great for repeat visitors to China and anyone blown away by the pace of development.
7. Zhēnde! Wǒ yìdiǎn dōu búkèqile!
“Really! I’m not being polite at all!”
Perfect for when people keep piling kung pao chicken into your bowl long after you’re full, or pouring you glass after drunken glass of baijiu — and think you’re just saying “búyào” (“I don’t want it”) to be polite.
Once, when a Chinese friend insisted I drink another round of Tsingdao, I had to repeat this phrase over and over while shielding my glass from his swinging beer bottle. Be ready to battle for your stomach and sobriety.
8. Fēi xià kǔgōngfū bùkě.
“It requires painstaking efforts.”
Some 5,000 tumultuous years of history have taught the Chinese that nothing comes easy. People usually say this when faced with any challenge, such as taking the national college entrance exams or pounding the pavement for a job.
It’s useful for climbing China’s mountains, squeezing into crowded transport, or walking into one of the noxious bathrooms at the train stations.
9. Bùhǎoyìsi, yǒushì. Yàozǒule.
“I’m sorry, I have something to do. I must go.”
Chinese people prefer to be vague about the details — which means you never have to explain why you need to leave right now. It’s ideal for uncomfortable situations of any kind. Add another “bùhǎoyìsi” at the end if you feel a little guilty for bolting.
10. Wēiwēi zhōnghuá, yuányuán liú cháng!
“China is awesome [in size], and has a long history!”
Show your love for the Middle Kingdom by praising two things that make the Chinese extra proud: their large country and nearly 5,000 years of history. Shout out this expression on the summit of Huangshan, from a watchtower on the Great Wall, or overlooking that grand vault of Terracotta Warriors.
Next time you’re in Beijing, Shanghai and beyond, see if you can use all 10 of these expressions. You would definitely be niú in my book.
For more on Mandarin, read Jocelyn’s narrative piece How I Learned to Read Chinese.
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Jocelyn never thought that China would be anything beyond one memorable year of teaching English. But after that year, she abandoned teaching for writing, pursued fluency in Mandarin Chinese, and, later, walked down the aisle with a Chinese national in Shanghai. A freelance writer and Chinese translator, she blogs at Speaking of China, and is still a sucker for China's TV love dramas.
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