Travel Tips for Touring China: Sound Like a Native
One of the most difficult things to encounter on a trip abroad is to meet someone… and find that you have no language in common. How would you tell the taxi driver where to go, the receptionist that you’ve reserved a room or a waiter what you would like to order? How do you avoid getting scammed by street vendors when you buy a souvenir, or find the nearest toilet?
If you’re heading to somewhere like China, it’s important to have the right vocabulary in your arsenal so that you are prepared for the possibility of meeting someone who doesn’t speak English. Despite having made leaps and bounds of economic progress in the past few years, a lot of people do not speak English, and communication can fall apart without outside assistance. With the great firewall still going strong in the country, there’s no getting round the obstacles with Google Translate either!
To help you on your way, here are a list of phrases and questions that will help you navigate around China, and maybe even speak like a true native whilst you’re at it!
Expressing what you want:
wǒ xiǎng wǒ yào
我 想。。。/ 我 要。。。
This key phrase is followed immediately by another verb to indicate desire. If you want to go (去 qù) somewhere, you say: 我想去… – I want to go (place name). If you want to eat (吃 chī) something, you say: 我想吃… – I want to eat (object).
If you want to express a stronger desire, then you can use: 我要. Using this phrase adds certainty, and this can also be used to indicate future tense.
In order to tell someone something more urgent, such as the idea that you need to do something, you can use the phrase: 必须 (bì xū).
wǒ bì xū qù jī chǎng
我 必 须 去 机 场。
I need to/must go to the airport.
Tip! Sound like a native:
This works in exactly the same way as 必须, and follows the same grammatical structure, but it’s a lot easier to say and is used in a much more informal sense.
… …. zài nǎ lǐ
。。。在 哪 里？
Unlike in English, the noun (aka. wherever it is you want to go, or any object you’re looking for) goes before the question itself. Whether it’s the name of a hotel, restaurant or tourist attraction, or an actual noun, such as ‘bathroom’, this is always said before the actual question.
xǐ shǒu jiān zài nǎ lǐ / cè suǒ zài nǎ lǐ
(洗 手 间) 在 哪 里?/ (厕 所) 在 哪 里?
Where is the (bathroom)?
tiān ān mén zài nǎ lǐ
(天 安 门) 在 哪 里？
Where is (Tiananmen Square)?
Tip! Sound like a Native:
To sound like a native, in particular if you want to mimic a typical ‘Beijing’ accent, change the 里 (lǐ) to an 儿 (er) (pronounced like an English ‘r’ sound). When pronounced together with the character 哪 (nǎ) meaning ‘where’, it produces a sound which is pushed together – ‘nar’ (like in narwhal).
chū zū chē zài nǎ er
(出 租 车) 在 哪 儿?
Where is the (taxi)?
… …. Duō shǎo qián
。。。 多 少 钱?
How much (is) …?
This question can be asked on its own, without needing to specify an object, and it would still make sense. Like asking for directions, however, if you do want to clarify what you’re referring to, the noun precedes the actual phrase.
Huǒ chē piào duō shǎo qián
(火 车 票) 多 少 钱？
How much is a (train ticket)?
Tip! Sound like a Native:
This is more applicable if you find yourself at a market or stall, and you’d like to know the price for one object, when the vendor sells a lot of it. To ask this, you say:
Duō shǎo qián yī gè
多 少 钱 一 个?
How much for one?
The last character 个 (gè) is a counter word used for objects in general. This counter word can be replaced with other counter words depending on the type of object you’re referring to. For paper-like objects, such as tickets, this is usually 张 (zhāng), and for drinks, it’s usually 杯 (bēi), literally meaning ‘glass’.
Duō shǎo qián yī zhāng Duō shǎo qián yī bēi
多 少 钱 一 张? / 多 少 钱 一 杯?
How much for a piece? / How much for a glass?
Ordering at Restaurants
kě yǐ diǎn cài ma
可 以 点 菜 吗？
Can we order?
The key word here is the phrase 点菜 (diǎn cài), which means ‘to order food’. Remember in China that multiple dishes are ordered to be shared among a group, so it’s not a case of ordering a dish for yourself if you’re more familiar with American or European style dining!
zhǔ shí yǒu shé me
主 食 有 什 么？
What are the mains?
Confusingly, ‘mains’ (主食, zhǔ shí) in Chinese does not refer to the main course, but rather the plainer sides which accompany the main dishes (菜, cài, literally ‘vegetables’) you order. 主食 can refer to rice, noodles, or steamed buns, which are usually the main options available at restaurants. These are the dishes which provide the core carbohydrate base of the meal, but dishes can often be enjoyed without any 主食 to accompany it.
That’s it for some of the most useful phrases you will need on your journey! Got any other handy phrases that helped you on your travels, or any other phrases you think should be on the list? Let us know in the comments below what you think – we would love to hear from you!
This is the final article of our series on China, we hope you enjoyed our look at the Middle Kingdom!