An absolute simpleton's guide to speaking Chinese

I am a hypocrite. If you know me, you know how much I love criticising British people for inheriting the privileges that hundreds of years of empire have endowed them with. I perceive in most British people a profound laziness towards the rest of the world. As a native English speaker, I am used to conversing with foreign people in foreign countries in my language, not theirs. Even when I learnt basic German in preparation for trips to Cologne and Berlin, I hardly used it as most people I encountered spoke to me in perfect English. I learnt French in high school but in a very lazy way. There was no urgency to learn, there was no feeling that I needed to learn a foreign language. Why would I when I can speak English in any country in the world and get a response that I can understand?!


Then I moved to China. Some people in China speak English. I am teaching Chinese children to speak English. I have a 13 year old student who I can speak to about the internet and the Titanic and senses and Heston Blumenthal with ease (explaining the concept of 'umami' was hard though), and he impresses me so much. When I was 13 I was learning days of the week in French and I’ve forgotten all except lundi – is that Monday? My point is that I am no authority to be explaining any foreign language to anyone, let alone Chinese. But I’m going to do it anyway! I think it might be helpful for my fellow monolingual simpletons out there to learn some Chinese basics in pinyin (the alphabetisation of Chinese characters) as well as my own personal brand of India pinyin, in italics. Please understand that on a day to day basis, I understand maybe 30% of what Fuzhou residents say to me and my most common response is ‘ting bu dong’ (I don’t understand) and they always laugh at me when I say that. I would say I’m a failure, but I didn’t even pretend to act like I would learn extensive Chinese while I was here. I set myself low standards and as a result, I’m actually happy I know any Chinese at all. (This is the secret to a happy life by the way, celebrating the tiniest achievements and thinking you’re the best thing since sliced bread).


Quick note: Mandarin Chinese (which is what I’m referring to when I say Chinese) is a tonal language. There are five tones. Can’t tell you which is which. The accents below tell you which is which if you want to research that further. Sometimes I say what I think I’m saying to a Chinese person but they are hearing something completely different because I am using the incorrect tone. Again, I’m lazy and I accept all judgements.


Everyday miscellaneous Chinese


Ting bu dong – I don’t understand.


Xièxiè (syeh syeh) - thank you. 

I say it more with a ‘sh’ sound and some Chinese people do and some don’t. Whatever, they’ll definitely understand what you’re trying to say with this one.


Lao wai (lao why)/Wàiguó rén (why-guh-ren) – foreigner.

Apparently lao wai translates to 'old white' and now they just use that to refer to all foreigners which I find funny. 


Duì (dway or doy) – yes/correct. 


Méiyǒu (mayo) – no/don’t have.

As in you ask a shop worker ‘do you have any chocolate?’ (in Chinese obvs) and they say ‘meiyou’.


Bu (boo) – no.


Bu yao (boo yow) – don’t want.

A shop worker processes your transaction and gets a plastic bag for you even though you have CLEARLY pulled a huge plastic bag out of your rucksack to at least try and save this damned Earth so you say ‘bu yao’ and shake your head furiously. They might ignore you and tell you need it. They might even use two plastic bags for the tiny pair of earrings you just purchased!


Piàoliang (pyow lian) – pretty/beautiful.


Wǒ bù huì shuō zhōngwén (Woh boo hway shwor Jungwen) – I don’t speak Chinese.

Intentionally say this inaccurately, otherwise they’ll think you actually can speak Chinese.


Wǒ shì yīngguó rén (woh shi ying-woh-ren)  - I am English.

 If you hear 'Měiguó (may-gwo)' they think you're American. From what I've seen, they usually assume this if you're tall and white.


Who, what, what, what, where (and when)


Shénme (sh-ma) – what?

This is one of my favourite Chinese words. It just sounds so good. I love when my students slip into Chinese and say this instead of ‘what?’, which they know perfectly well. It just rolls off the tongue so nicely.


Nǎlǐ (nah-lee) – where.

If you hear ‘ni zai nali’, someone is probably asking you where you’re from.


Wèishéme (way-sh-ma) - why?


Shénme shíhòu (sh-ma shi-ho) - when?


Me (ma) – ?

This is essentially the question mark of Chinese. It’s the word which indicates that the words preceding it were intended as a question. My friend here seems to think that you can say any word and put ‘ma’ after it, and it’ll immediately be perceived as a question. Examples include: ‘lunch ma?’ ‘now ma?’ ‘soup ma?’


Directions for taxi drivers


Zuoguai (zo-gwhy) – turn left.


Youguai (yo-gwhy) – turn right.


Zhí zǒu (ji zo) – go straight.




Niúròu (new roe) – beef.


Jīròu (ji roe) – chicken.


Zhūròu (joo roe) – pork (or sometimes just referred to as rou, as pork is the staple meat in parts of China where Muslims aren't the majority anyway).


Tǔdòu (too doe) – potato.


Mĭfàn (me fan) – rice.


Miàn (me-en) – noodles.

I don’t understand why we say ‘mein’ in England when referring to the Chinese for noodles. Why did we change the two sounds in the middle around?


Chǎomiàn (chow me-en) – fried noodles.


Là – spicy.


Yī diǎndiǎn (ee dien dien) – a little bit.

So if your chao mien (fried noodles) lady says ‘la’ you can say ‘yi dien dien’ to mean that you want them a little bit spicy. Or if someone asks you if you speak Chinese, you can say 'yi dien dien'. Even if what you really mean is ‘I can speak about 30 words in Chinese, all in the wrong tones’.


Shǔ tiáo (shoo tiow) – French fries.

(Or chips as any self-respecting Brit knows them). Essential for when you’re tired of rice and noodles.


Fānqié jiàng (fan-ji jiang) – ketchup.


And for all my black people who want to visit China (I'm assuming there's like 5 of you):


Hēisè (hay-suh) – black.

People will just shout this at you in the street and I’m still unsure of what the correct reaction is supposed to be. I usually just say ‘yup!’ and keep it moving.


Zǒu kāi (zo kai) - go away.

I’ll use this on kids, anyone who wants to test me. I committed to this memory when some ugly kid was harassing me for nearly an hour on a train.


Fēizhōu rén (Fay-jo ren) – African.

You’ll hear this a lot because obviously all black people are African. No-one has ever assumed that I’m Caribbean. Sometimes I correct people but I’m not offended. I wouldn’t look at an East Asian person and immediately assume that they’re from Canada so I get it.


Wǒ de māmā láizì fēizhōu (woh duh mama lie-zuh fay-jo) – my mum is from Africa.

You’ll use this when you explain that you’re English and they point at your skin and say something about how you’re not white so you can’t be from England. This happened when I told a shop worker that myself and my white friend were both English. 


Look, Chinese is hard. Learning any language is hard but I can confidently claim that Chinese in particular is difficult. And I'm not even talking about reading and writing it - that's a whole other field that I can't even be bothered to delve into. So celebrate any instance where you speak Chinese and someone understands you. Low standards = happy life. If you excel in Chinese or not, you have to learn some if you're going to visit China. This country of nearly 2 billion people is not bending to Anglocentric cultural standards any time soon and it's time for you to try and integrate instead of expecting other nationalities to already have mastered your language.

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