AFTER FIVE YEARS of studying Chinese language and culture, one year in Taiwan, and seven months (so far) in mainland China, I’ve found that in most of my everyday Chinese conversations I often revert to a small set of words that go a long way toward more efficient communication. The beauty is that these words are so short and simple you can learn to use them almost immediately.
1. 哎呀 Ai ya (ay yah) — “Oh, my!” An exclamation used to cover everything from mild surprise to real or pretend shock. Not exactly an indispensable phrase, but it is useful as it helps you to express a degree of dissatisfaction or amazement while at the same time breaking some social ice.
The locals will always smile at a foreigner using this very native expression. They’ll think you’re cute, and in China cute goes a long way. (No, really, it does work. Just last night a Chinese friend of mine took notice when I casually dropped it in the conversation.)
2. 哪里 Nali (nah lee) — “Where?” It’s a polite protestation when someone praises you; and you will be praised, whether for your exotic looks or great Chinese skills — simply saying hello may earn you a good deal of admiration. Again: not a basic necessity phrase, but it will definitely bring out some smiles.
It’s one of those very local words that Chinese people — being brought up in a self-effacing culture — use all the time, but don’t really expect foreigners to know. Say it and you’re gaining a lot of credibility as a linguist as well as a person that knows their manners.
3. 借过一下 Jie guo yixia (jie gwoh yi hsia) — “Excuse me, let me through.” Do I need to stress the usefulness of this phrase in a country with a population of 1.3 billion people, who do not, as a rule, look around or step aside to let you get out of a bus? The last word is a softener, so you may skip it if needs be.
4. 干吗 Ganma?! (gan mah) — “What the heck?!” Enough of politeness. Sometimes you just run out of patience and you want to be able to express it. Ganma is your friend. A cabbie is taking you for a ride? A street vendor is obviously trying to fleece you? A scooter driver is honking at you even though you really can’t move aside? Ganma! This phrase will incur shock and awe — show them you’re not just another helpless tourist and you know what’s what.
5. 老外 Laowai (lao why) — “Old foreigner.” That’s your new name. You’ll hear it everywhere, even though it used to be considered slightly offensive, as opposed to the official term for foreigners, which is waiguoren — “A person from a foreign country.”
If you hear it somewhere around you, you know they’re talking about you. You can then have the extreme pleasure of embarrassing the gossipy Chinese with a wide smile or a withering look of death — even if you can’t actually understand what it was they were saying about you.
WARNING! This word, once learned, cannot be unlearned. Remember it at your own risk. You’re running the danger of becoming permanently annoyed with the knowledge that apparently everyone within 20 meters has nothing better to do than comment about you, while assuming that, being a laowai, you obviously don’t understand a single word.