In my opinion, one of the top reasons Westerners are reluctant to travel to China is fear of the language barrier. The elaborate Chinese characters are awfully intimidating and the challenge of speaking and being understood might seem insurmountable. While I failed in my attempt to master the language, I did learn enough Mandarin to survive in Shanghai as an expat for two years.
There is a surprising amount of English spoken in cosmopolitan Shanghai, but a little of the local language will still go a long way. Just be patient and smile! Like my mom always said, you will catch more flies with honey than vinegar. My tips on haggling can be found at the end of this post.
General Words and Phrases
Nǐ hǎo (你好) – hello – pronounced knee-how
Zàijiàn (再见) – goodbye – pronounced dzeye-jee-ehn
Xièxiè (谢谢) – thank you – pronounced sheeyeah-sheeyeah
- Bù kèqì (不客气) – you’re welcome – pronounced boo-kuh-chee
- Shénme (什么) – what? – pronounced shuhmah (you will likely hear this one a lot as people – especially taxi drivers – might not get what you said the first time around)
Duì (对) – yes or right – pronounced duay
Bù (不) – no – pronounced boo
- Tīng bù dǒng (听不懂) – I don’t understand – pronounced ting-boo-dong (this is probably the most important phrase you can learn)
- Míngbáile (明白了) – I understand – pronounced ming-buy-lah
- Duìbùqǐ (对不起) – I’m sorry – pronounced duay-boo-chee
- Méi bànfǎ (没办法) – it can’t be helped – pronounced may-ban-fah
Words for Ordering Food
Zhège (这个) – this – pronounced jay-guh
Fàn (饭) – rice – pronounced fahn
Miàntiáo (面条) – noodles – pronounced mee-ehn-tee-ow
- Xiǎo lóng bāo (小笼包) – dumplings – pronounced shee-ow-long-bow
Zhūròu (猪肉) – pork meat – pronounced jew-roe
Jīròu (鸡肉) – chicken meat – pronounced gee-roe
Niúròu (牛肉) – beef – pronounced nyew-roe
Shūcài (蔬菜) – vegetables – pronounced shoe-tseye
Dòufu (豆腐) – tofu – pronounced doe-foo
Words for Taking a Taxi
Many of Shanghai’s taxi drivers aren’t actually from the city and most don’t speak any English. They also may not be familiar with all the city’s streets. If you are able to pronounce street names correctly in Chinese, the best course of action is to tell the driver to take you to the closest major intersection. Otherwise, show the driver the address in Chinese characters or get someone at your hotel to tell them where you want to go.
Qù nǎlǐ (去哪里) – where going? – pronounced chew-nah-lee (the taxi driver will ask this when you get in the car)
- Wǒ qù (我去) – I go to – pronounced woah-chew
Lùkǒu (路口) – intersection – pronounced loo-koh
Zhèlǐ hǎo (这里好) – here is good – pronounced juhlee-how
Yòubiān (右边) – right side – pronounced yo-bee-ehn
- Zuǒbiān (左边) – left side – pronounced dzwhoa-bee-ehn
- Yīzhí zǒu (一直走) – keep going straight – pronounced eee-jer-dzoh
Xiànjīn (现金) – cash – pronounced shee-ehn-jean
Shuākǎ (刷卡) – swipe card – pronounced shuah-kah (this is what you would say if you want to pay by credit card, though I’d pay cash if you can so there’s no risk of being scammed)
Tips for avoiding taxi scams (as of 2013): Look for the green and white cars and vans with the yellow phone number printed on the side. Other reputable companies have cars that are white or blue. Never get into a taxi without a phone number on the side of the car. Avoid the burgundy taxis, whose company is rumored to overwork its drivers and have a higher accident rate, as well as all unmarked cars. Steer clear of cars with tinted windows.
A standard ride within the downtown area should cost no more than 30 RMB. Some cars have tampered meters so if it looks like you are being “taken for a ride,” kindly but firmly ask to be let out at the nearest intersection. I made the mistake of getting into a burgundy car with tinted windows and the meter ran up faster than a teenager’s cell phone bill! The driver didn’t balk when I asked him to stop the car (“xiàchē zhèlǐ hǎo”) and I played it safe by paying him anyway.
Words for Shopping
When it comes to making a purchase, don’t be afraid to do some miming. I succeeded in having custom framing done using only the Chinese word for “this” and lots of pointing and gesturing. Ditto for having things altered by a tailor. My go-to seamstress always laughed at my antics but the job was almost always done as I’d asked/mimed. People will generally do whatever it takes to make a sale!
Custom-made clothes will generally be ready one week from the day you place the order. If you need it done faster, be prepared to pay for it. When saying the sizes given below, it helps to accompany them with coordinating hand gestures.
- Wǒ yào (我要) – I want – pronounced woah-yow
- Bùyào (不要) – don’t want – pronounced boo-yow
Duōshǎo qián (多少钱) – how much money? – pronounced dwoah-shao-chee-ehn
- Tài guile (太贵了) – too expensive – pronounced tai-guay-lah
Kěyǐ (可以) – can or okay – pronounced – kuh-yee
- Da (大) – big – pronounced dah
- Zhōng (中) – middle or medium – pronounced jong
- Xiao (小) – small – pronounced shee-yow
How to haggle: Say “wǒ yào zhège” while holding up the item you want to buy. Then ask “duōshǎo qián?” You will be shown a price on a calculator. Know that the price will be inflated by anywhere from 20 to 50 percent.
Don’t begin to bargain unless you are genuinely interested in buying the article. Respond with “tài guile” and enter your counter offer. Smile! The seller might act like you just insulted her grandmother, but that’s just part of the show. Go back and forth until you reach a price you are both happy with and you say “kěyǐ.” Keep things friendly and don’t squabble over a few pennies. You’re trying to get a fair price, not stick it to the shop keeper.
If the seller won’t budge, walk to the next store which likely has something similar. The shop keeper may chase after you calling out a lower price. If it’s just a little bit higher than what you offered, it’s nice to accept and allow the seller to save face with his or her neighbors.
Have you been to China? What words did you find most useful?