Chinese for beginners – 10 words and phrases to help get you by

The thought of learning Chinese can be overwhelming at first … There’s so many different tones, how can I possibly put them together correctly? What if I say the wrong thing and offend someone? How are people ever going to understand me? … The key is to practice a lot with your new-found Chinese friends (of which you will make many!) and to start with some basics. Chinese people are quite fascinated with foreigners and most love to try to converse with you (even when it’s clear you don’t understand!). It of course helps if you have a few key words and phrases under your belt to start with, so here’s my version of Chinese for beginners – 10 words and phrases to help get you by.

Hello – 你好 Nǐ hǎo (nee haow)

You’ll hear most people say hello to you this way (many actually also use English and yell ‘hello’ at you from afar, I think mostly to get a reaction and sometimes to practice their English).  Nǐ hǎo ma? (nee-haow-mah?) is also a common greeting to ask how are you?

Where are you from? – 你从哪里来? nǐ cǒng nǎ lǐ lái (knee tzaun nar lee lei)

I’ve found Chinese people to be very curious about foreigners, so often the first question they will ask you is where are you from? Even if you can’t understand much of anything else they say to you, you’ll understand this and be able to proudly answer with your country of origin!

Thank you – 谢谢 Xièxie (shsyeah-shsyeah)

I try to be polite no matter what country I’m travelling in, especially when I don’t know a lot of the language. So learning how to say thank you when someone helps you out is a must for me. Thank you isn’t as commonly used here as it is back home, so I find people are generally extra appreciative when I say it.

Waiter – 服务员 fúwùyuán (foo-yu-an)

The most common way to alert the wait staff in a restaurant is to yell foo-yu-an! Now don’t be shy, if you need something from the wait staff, do as the locals do: yell foo-yu-an and wave your arm in the air. Nǐ hǎo (nee haow) will also work, but you’ll have more success with fúwùyuán.

This one – 这个 zhège (je-ga)

Going to restaurants where the menus have pictures is a great tactic to make sure you eat well when you first arrive. You can clearly see what you’ll get, there’ll be (theoretically) no surprises when the dish arrives, and you can simply point to the picture and say je-ga.

Where’s the bathroom? – 厕所在哪里? Cèsuǒ zài nǎlǐ? (tser-swor dzeye naa-lee?)

After a few píjiu (pee-gee-oh, or beers), or just while you’re out and about sight-seeing and you’ve drunk a little too much shuĭ (sh-way or water), you’ll probably need to use the bathroom. Here in Tianjin many restaurants don’t have their own bathroom, so you’ll need to hunt down the nearest one.

Can I have the check/bill please? – 买单 măidān  (my dahn)

After you’ve eaten your delicious meal, you’ll need to call the fúwùyuán over again and ask for the bill, or măidān, as they generally won’t just bring it to you. Having said that, keep in mind that some restaurants will bring you the bill to pay right after you’ve ordered and before you’ve even seen any food!

How much is it? – 多少钱? Duōshao qián? (Dwor-shaow chyen?)

You’re most likely going to want to check out the many markets on offer in China. So that you can at least look like you know what you’re doing (and hopefully grab a bargain), you’ll need to know how to ask how much is it? You’ll probably also want to learn how to count in Chinese, so you understand the reply!

I’m sorry – 对不起 Duìbuqǐ (dway-boo-chee)

If you are late, make a mistake, bump into someone, or just don’t understand something you can use dway-boo-chee. You can also use wǒ tīng bù dǒng (wore ting boo dong) if you don’t understand someone.

Goodbye – 拜拜 bai bai (bye bye)

A colleague of mine told me when she first came to China she thought people were making fun of her when they said bai bai! But fear not, bai bai really is the way to say goodbye in Chinese and this is one of the easier words you’ll learn.


Now of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg in your Chinese language learning journey. Chinese lessons are a great idea, as is lots of practice! Try to be fearless and just give it a go. Hopefully these ten words and phrases (plus the few extras I threw in) will be enough to help get you by in the beginning.

What other beginner level phrases do you need to get you by in China? Tell us below.

About the Author:

DSCN6110  Penny de Vine is a thirty-something Australian freelance writer with a love for travel and trying anything new! You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Culture Shock: China Edition

Language is one of many obstacles to overcome in China
”你是哪里人?“ (Where are you from?)

Imagine you’ve just arrived in Shanghai for a year of teaching English in China – sounds like an amazing adventure, right? After several weeks of exploring the city, meeting new friends, learning a few Mandarin phrases and sampling the incredible food, you notice a slight change. Anxiety comes on slow at first, but suddenly you can’t sleep at night and you start longing to return home. This is the onset of culture shock.

A country like China presents unique challenges – the exotic food and indecipherable language are enough to intimidate the most intrepid explorers. The obstacles are particularly formidable in rural areas where residents aren’t accustomed to interacting with foreigners.

But fear not. Culture shock is a common feeling experienced even by those with flexible and adaptable personalities. Thus, it’s important for aspiring English teachers to learn about culture shock and prepare themselves for the times ahead – the good and the not-so-good!

Defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as: “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place (such as a foreign country) that is very different from what you are used to”.

Psychologists have identified four  phases: Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment and Mastery. Each phase is defined by distinct characteristics and it’s not uncommon for people to experience one or more of the phases several times.

The first stage of culture shock is the Honeymoon stage. During this time, you will probably experience euphoria and an almost constant feeling of excitement. You will find out what sensory overload really feels like as you are bombarded with new sights, smells, tastes and sounds. Everything is interesting and fresh – maybe you’ll even start a journal or a  photo blog! Interestingly, during this stage people often lose their ability to be critical and easily look past annoyances, delays and problems. Most issues will be overlooked and rationalized as minor inconveniences on the road to personal and professional fulfillment. As with any honeymoon period, these feelings won’t last forever.

The second stage is Negotiation – this is when the ‘shock’ begins to take hold. You may begin to reject everything about the foreign country and its cultural identity.  Anxiety usually builds gradually, becoming stronger by the day. During this stage you might develop sleeping or eating problems and become less social – you will begin to miss the comforts of home and may have a profound longing for friends and family. In more serious cases, people who drink or smoke may do so more heavily to help them cope with their stress.

Your critical judgement will come rushing back, and cultural nuances such as personal hygiene, traffic safety (or lack thereof, as in China) , language barriers and inter-cultural communication gaps become much more apparent. The sudden change in your emotional state may result in feelings of alienation, increase stress, negatively affect work performance and even lead to arguments. Sometimes you may begin to question if you made the right choice in coming here. During this stage it’s important to develop a strong support network consisting of people who are experiencing what you are as well as those who have already ‘been there, done that’ and can offer sound advice.

Though all of this may sound horrifying, the good news is that it’s all perfectly normal. In fact, overcoming this hurdle is a critical component of personal growth!

Thus begins the next stage: Adjustment. Also known as “The Recovery Phase”, this is the time when you ought to be able identify and recognize your feelings with more clarity. You will develop mechanisms to cope with and overcome any negative feelings you may be experiencing. You will begin to notice the differences between your own culture and that of your host country and become accepting of both. People with high emotional intelligence will be able to recognize and manage their emotions most effectively.

But be cautious during the Adjustment phase – it’s still wise to take emotional inventory every so often – you should remain vigilant in analyzing and assessing your feelings. It’s common for people to back-slide into the Negotiation phase and then Adjust/Recover again. Although the ‘lows’ associated with Negotiation usually aren’t as pronounced as they were the first time, you should continue to calibrate your emotional state.

One suggestion that might encourage the onset of ‘Adjustment’ – immersion into the host country’s culture. In China, you may begin studying Chinese, traditional ink painting or martial arts. Community involvement and volunteering are also great ways to connect with the people and feel more in touch with your new home. These types of activities can reignite your original passion, will give you a deeper sense of appreciation and will remind you why you came to begin with.

The last stage is Mastery – this simply means that you have assimilated into your host country and it begins to feel like a second home to you.  You may have achieved some proficiency with the language by this point and can handle your day-to-day affairs independently. Feeling at home in a foreign country is an impressive achievement and will help you in other areas of your life. You will become more flexible, more adept at working in cross-cultural teams, develop a larger world view and will cope with change more effectively. Not to mention, you will be better equipped to deal with culture shock in the future if you find yourself in another country for work or travel.

Culture shock isn’t something to fear – it’s merely something to be aware of and prepare for. As Christopher Columbus once said, “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”  Overcoming the challenges of living abroad will make you stronger in mind and spirit and shouldn’t deter you from making the bold move to teach a year (or two) in China.

Are you ready to find your China teaching job? Apply online or email us at to learn more!