Back to basics: 5 phrases I wish I would know from the start
1. Getting around
When walking down the streets of China, no matter how confident your walk and no matter how good your Chinese is, your looks will always betray you and in the eyes of Chinese you shall forever remain a foreigner. Laowai. Many times, that will mean something good: attention and kindness from complete strangers; in some other cases, this attention will be unwanted, especially when you are seen as a potential scam target. Or, if not a scam, you’ll be bugged to buy this and that: bags, watches, shoes, mainly.
When approached by a street peddler, or someone offering you their business card or a catalogue, this is what you should say:
不要，谢谢. ( Bù Yào, Xièxie. ). I don’t want it, thank you.
2. Excuse me, where is the water closet?
When in a restaurant, subway station or walking down the street, you might find yourself in a need of a restroom. Although public toilets should be used with caution in China, not all of them are bad and let’s face it, when there’s a need, there’s a way. To ask about the toilet/restroom/WC/loo, you should ask in one of these ways:
厕所在哪里？(CèSuǒ Zài NǎLi?)
洗手间在哪里？(XǐShǒuJiān Zài NǎLi?)
卫生间在哪里？(WèiShēngJiān Zài NǎLi?)
They all mean the same, though 厕所 is less formal than the other two.
3. Old spice
In the western countries we are offered a saltier, blander version of Chinese food. In reality, Chinese food tends to be quite spicy, greasy and, generally, comes in a variety of different tastes: sour, spicy, sweet, bitter – sometimes all of these are offered just during a course of a single meal. Still, spicy tends to be that overwhelming taste that is not appreciated by everyone. No matter if you are talking to the owner of your local fried-rice stall or to a waiter in a fancy restaurant, here’s how you can voice it:
请不要放辣椒。(Qǐng Bù Yào Fàng LàJiāo.) Please, don’t add spice.
4. The bargaining game
Oh yes, the many pleasures of China. While bargaining is certainly not one of my favourite things to do, it is definitely something unavoidable. Remember to play it cool and not to buy all those kitch-y things that you don’t actually need. Even if something does spike your interest, don’t show it! Remain nonchalant and detached.
Also, if you shop in a big city such as Beijing, Guangzhou, or Shanghai, or a huge tourist destination such as the area around the lake in Hangzhou, the prices will be quite high.
便宜一点，可以吗？ (PiánYi YīDiǎn, KěYǐ Ma?) Can you do it a little bit cheaper?
If they say no, turn around and leave. Chances are they will be calling you back into their store the moment you walk away.
5. Say, what?
No matter how bad your Chinese is, your efforts of speaking it will be generally well received. Yes, your tones might be all of place and your sentences might be full of (unintentional) double entendres, but you will be welcomed with radiating smiles, winks and general air of approval and good humour.
And then it’s their turn to speak. You will be poked and prodded with every and any imaginable question ranging from your age, weight to the price of your clothes, your car and your salary. When you are ready to know what they are actually asking, try slowing them down first:
请说慢一点 (Qǐng Shuō Màn YīDiǎn. )
This doesn’t always work and it might just result in numerous repetition of the same or even faster speed.
Don’t give up! Fortune favours the bold!