Published on:
November 22, 2018

by: Guest

Top 5 Mandarin Survival Phrases to last you through your first month in China!

This week’s blog comes from our resident blogger and Teach China Graduate Program 2018 cohort, Jonas Groom. Jonas provides us with a survival guide on the top 5 Mandarin phrases to last you through your first few months in China!

Three months into my China journey, I can safely say I have now I have comfortably settled into life in Beijing. With a basic knowledge of Mandarin, I can also comfortably* go about my day.

I’m writing this little blog for all those future teachers or expats not yet at this stage! I know that after stepping off that plane in Beijing airport I would’ve done anything to have a list of survival Mandarin phrases! Anyway, without further aideu here we go…

*Dislcaimer* I’ve organised this list in order of importance
– I realise most of you reading this post are probably not yet able to read pinyin let alone Chinese characters so I’ve created my own little phonetic spelling which will be followed by the pinyin and then the characters!

1. Ting booh dong | tīng bu dǒng | 听 不 懂  “I don’t understand”


This expression is number one for a reason. I for one, wasn’t used to the fast-paced environment of Beijing. In broken Mandarin I’d ask someone where to go, or an attendant how to buy a ticket, etc etc. and 95% of the time they’d rattle off a reply in quick Mandarin.

Due to spoken Mandarin’s loud and ‘in your face’ nature, this would slightly put me on edge and make the whole interaction a whole lot more stressful than it needed to be (wait till you arrive and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about here!)

Being able to whip out this phrase is a godsend – It lets whoever you’re talking to realise that you are indeed a baby in this new country and makes them slow down in their answers until through multiple hand gestures or broken English you’re able to understand their response! Highly valuable!

2.  Kahn boo dong | kàn bù Dǒng | 看 不 懂 “I can’t read”


I know this trails on from the first phrase, but I just have to put this one second. The amount of times I’ve been signalled to look at a menu, list or information board all in Chinese characters is infinite. Now it turns out my response all these times was telling someone that I was blind, or that I ‘couldn’t see’ (我 不 可以 看- Wǒ bù kěyǐ kàn). It was only recently that I realised my mistake and learned the correct way to say I can’t read. This phrase is very helpful as it lets the person know you can’t read nor understand what they’re pointing at – and if you’re lucky this will lead to an English equivalent being given to you!

3. ‘I don’t want (it)’ – Two types!


booh siye | bú xiè | 不谢 (More ‘no thanks’ish)
booh yao | bú yào | 不 要 (More ‘I don’t want it! – for when they really get in your face)

As westerners, the local Chinese vendors see big yuan dollar sign halos above our heads. Prepare to be hassled and constantly offered products when you enter into markets or shopping areas. Initially, as a clueless westerner, I wasn’t used to these environments and I must admit, the vendors did use my over politeness to their advantage! This was also partly due to my lack of knowledge of Mandarin – in particular, the fact I didn’t know how to say “No thanks, I don’t want it.” Thus we have the two fourth phrases in this list – throw this at any vendors that get in your face and you’ll be like Yoda with the force! (Repelling the unwanted products not duelling the Chinese sellers with lightsabres)

4. _______ zai nahr |zài nǎr |在 那人 “Where is the ______”
(Sentence structure is switched in Mandarin)


Now you’ve told your fellow expat or Chinese friend to meet at the bank, the metro station or a well-known landmark and you’ve left the apartment. However, after twenty minutes of wandering around and getting lost – you now have no idea where you are let alone how to get there. Have no fear – whip out this fourth phrase and you’ll get some directions from whoever is graced with your terrible attempt at Mandarin! You won’t be able to understand the verbal directions, but hand gestures are still gold!


5. die woh choo | Dài wǒ qù | 带我去 “Take me to …”


You’re running late to work or an event, the subway is too crowded and will take too long so you try your luck with a taxi. Throw this phrase at the driver plus the best attempt at the name/address of the place that you can manage and this will streamline your ride! Making the difficult dialogue between the driver and yourself much easier!

Well There you go, guys, I hoped you’ve noted down these five phrases as you sure will need them when you get here. Once again – don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or just want to know more about teaching in China!


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