(One) idiot’s guide to survival Chinese

As promised, here is just a small fraction of what I was taught at Omeida for anyone who might like to arm themselves with a bit of vocab prior to visiting China. These are the words and phrases I found most useful, or that I just happened to like. 🙂

Word of warning – I am neither an expert on Chinese nor even a novice at it; I am also not a teacher.

The first column is the word/phrase written in Pinyin. I have included tone marks, but I am not even going to begin to attempt to explain the tonal subtleties of Chinese. See here for just a brief intro if you are interested.

The second column is my attempt to explain my understanding of the pronunciation (minus the tones, as mentioned). Pronunciation examples in quotation marks indicate that the pronunciation is like or similar to that word in English. Examples without quotation marks are my attempts to give a phonetic example of how something should sound. Please note that the pronunciation is based on American English.

Please note as well that any mistakes are my own and not a reflection of Omeida! I apologize to anyone who might be offended by my neophyte grasp of Chinese. 😉

Chinese Pinyin Pronounciation guide English meaning
nĭ hăo  “knee” “how”  hello
xiè xiè shee-ay shee-ay (said quickly so that “shee-ay” sounds almost like one syllable) thank you
hăo ba “how” ba okay, it’s okay
bú kè qi “boo” ka chee you’re welcome (informal)
zài jiàn  zie (rhymes with “bye”) jee-en good bye
qĭng wèn ching “when” excuse me
zhè ge juh guh this/this one/this thing or item (good for pointing to items on a menu or in a shop)
pí jiŭ “pee” “geo” beer
shuĭ shway water
kā fēi kah “fey” coffee
duō shăo qián? ““d’oh” show (rhymes with how) shee-en (like the French word “chien”) how much does this cost?
cè suŏ tseh so-ah (said quickly so that “so-ah” sounds almost like one syllable) (this one was so hard for me to pronounce!) toilet
wŏ bù zhī dào “woah” boo juh dow (like dow stock exchange) I don’t know
wŏ yào chī fàn “woah” yow (rhymes with how) chih fan (pronounced somewhere between “fan” and “fun”) I want to eat (something/a meal)
chī băo le chih bow leh (bow leh sounds a bit like the woman’s name “Paola” with a “b”) I’ve had enough to eat
hăo chī “how” chih yummy (applies to food only)
yì bān bān ee ban ban so so, average, not so exciting
zhè shì shén me? juh sheh shen muh what is this?
fàn diàn fan (pronounced somewhere between “fan” and “fun”) dee-“anne” restaurant
wŏ lèi le “woah” “lay” leh I am tired
măi dān “my” dan check (if you want to ask for the bill in a restaurant, just shout this out)
hăo bù hăo “how” “boo” “how” literally “good not good” it means do you want it or don’t you want it? i.e. if someone is offering you something like food. Respond with “hăo” if you want it; “bu hăo” if you don’t
bù yào “boo” yow (rhymes with “how”) I don’t want. You can use it to specify what you don’t want “bu yao ka fei” – I don’t want a coffee or on it’s own to refuse something offered.
wŏ yào yī píng pí jiŭ “woah” yow (rhymes with “how”) ee ping “pee” “geo” I want one bottle of beer
wŏ ài nĭ “woah” “eye” “knee” I love you.
shuĭ niú shway “neo” water buffalo
péng you pung “yo” (rhymes with owe) friend
nán guà nan (similar to nan bread) gwah pumpkin


ee one
èr “are” two
sān san three
s’ four
ooh five
liù “leo” six
chee seven
bah eight
jiŭ “geo” (sounds like geo-thermal) nine
shí shih ten
shí yī shih ee 11
shí èr shih “are” 12
èr  shí “are” shih 20
èr  shí yī “are” shih ee 21
băi “bye” 100 as a unit of measure
yī băi ee “buy” 100
èr băi “are” “buy” 200
líng ling zero

More resources

I found a simple website that has sound clips for loads of words if you’d like to hear some pronunciation:


These podcasts are also not bad to get some useful phrases to take with you (samples available on iTunes):


Thoughts on Chinese and communication in China

Finally, getting back to our days as students of Chinese in lovely Yangshuo… 🙂

We’d heard China was more challenging to visit than other parts of Asia due to language. After so many months wandering through Southeast Asia, we did find that it was different, but I definitely would not describe it as difficult or even challenging.

Rather, I’d put out two points that might contribute to this perception.

Tourism in Southeast Asia

The impact of the language barrier in China isn’t difficult, it’s that it’s so non-existent/easy in Southeast Asia.

Most places we visited – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and even Laos (Myanmar less so, but even there it was no problem to get around) – are completely geared towards Western tourists.

These countries have, for the most part, well-established service industries, which often form a valuable part of the nations’ economies, and there is a lot of incentive for people to learn English. Not just people working in hotels and restaurants, but cab drivers, store vendors, immigration officers, etc. in these countries would all have good reason to know at least some English.

Tourism in China

China, however, is a different story.

I have to imagine the experience for a Westerner traveling to China must be a lot like any non-English-speaking tourist coming to visit America (at least on the language front).

And it’s not that no Chinese know or speak English. It’s that they don’t feel the need to.

In Southeast Asia, people automatically spoke English to us. They got a kick out of it when we could say a few poorly pronounced words in their own language but anything beyond those few basic words was communicated in English.

In China, we found plenty of people who could and were willing to speak English.

But we also encountered loads of folks – and this was an experience unique to China – who would ramble on to us in Chinese regardless of the confused and bemused expressions on our faces. Especially if we did try out our few phrases and vocab words – then we were in trouble! Answers to our recently memorized questions would come back 100 times faster and harder to understand than the practice conversations we’d had with Becky in class. It was fun and funny, and usually we could figure out a way to communicate at least a bit through body language.

Getting back to my point though… My theory is that China’s economy is larger and more diverse than to be reliant on foreign tourism. What’s more, it has a markedly thriving and increasing domestic tourism industry that was much more significant than in any other country we’ve visited so far on our journey. So there is less need or incentive to cater to foreign tourists to the same extent countries like Thailand or Cambodia do.

That being said, a good portion of the people we encountered DID speak English, and on that front I imagine the similarities to visiting the United States come to an end. I have to imagine the chances of tourists receiving directions, finding out the price of a souvenir or buying bus tickets in their native language – whether it be Chinese, Russian, German, etc. – in America are slim to none. The chance that their questions, posed in hesitant, accented English, will be answered in a flurry of loud, rapidly spoken English however, is more likely. 🙂

The bottom line

It was a lot easier to get around China – at least the places we visited – using English than we had anticipated. Nonetheless, I’m still really glad we learned at least some of the basics. Many people speak at least a bit of English, and in most cases you can make yourself understood with gestures if need be. Many stores and vendors have calculators at the ready, so they can point to a price and not a word need be exchanged between the two of you.

But the interactions were so much nicer for me when I could at least say “thank you” in Chinese, if not a bit more. And not everyone will have a calculator – the simple thing that I found most useful of everything we learned at Omeida was the numbers.

So my next post will be a small collection of just some of what we learned at Omeida for anyone who wants a bit of survival Chinese. 🙂

Chinese appetizer: part two

A little bit more about Omeida before I start in on Yangshuo itself.

The number of students at the school to study Chinese was pretty small. While we were there, there was just a handful of us compared to the large number of English students. The beginner’s course was only Roman and I and a lovely young woman from the Ukraine named Anna. So Becky could give us lots of individual attention during our lesson (much to Roman’s chagrin I think. 😉 )

The number of English students was much higher however. If we’d been staying for a longer, more comprehensive course, we would have taken advantage of the school’s offer of a study buddy – where we could practice our Chinese with a native speaker in exchange for helping them with their English.

We had the opportunity to run into most of the students every day at lunch, which was served cafeteria style (to complete the full back-to-school experience for me 😉 and was awesome. Simple but simply wonderful Chinese dishes – always with plenty of delicious vegetable options that I was of course thrilled about – and white mountains of steaming self-serve rice.

Another thing that the school is good at is field trips and activities. Yangshuo and the surrounding area have plenty of lovely natural and cultural sights to see and they’ll regularly organize group outings at the weekend. The school also hosts activities; while we were there we got to try our hand at a bit of traditional Chinese calligraphy. Our teacher made it look a lot easier in her demonstrations than it actually is, but I loved it, even if I wasn’t that good at it. 😉

Charming Yangshuo 

We’d been a bit jaded by our experiences at tourist towns in Vietnam, and we were worried that we’d find parts of China to be similar – with interactions tending towards transactional, pushy, cold or downright unfriendly or dishonest. I was so relieved to find myself feeling genuinely welcome in Yangshuo.

Yangshuo is a very small city by Asian standards and we found it easy to navigate and a comfortable, accommodating place to spend a few weeks (although the course lasted two weeks, we stayed on for longer in order to extend our visas and see a bit of the countryside in good weather, since things were wet and cold while we were learning Chinese).

With a population of about 300,000, it’s got more small town charm than big city bustle. It’s a major tourist destination, so there are plenty of decent restaurants to choose from, not to mention useless, kitschy souvenirs to buy. But once you get away from the touristy strip it is just a normal town and quite a nice one at that.

Within days of our arrival, we’d get waves and smiles from the shopkeepers on the street round the corner which we would walk every day after class to head into town for a coffee or dinner. We became regulars at a few places – a fantastic corner fruit stand, a little general store and, my favorite, the stationery shop – where the vendors were wonderfully friendly and willing to speak slow, well-enunciated Chinese with us as we fumbled along trying to practice the day’s lessons.

I’ll write more about the touristy things to do in Yangshuo in another post, but suffice to say, as a place to spend a few weeks to get an introduction to Chinese and China, it was a great choice.

Chinese appetizer: part one

Now that you know where to find us, I’ll finally get back to where I left off – leaving Xinjiang Province to go discover a bit more of China.

Traveling through southeast Asia with English was no problem – it’s a part of the world that’s ready to welcome Western tourists. We’d heard that getting around China would be trickier though, and we were keen to try something new, so we decided to take a two-week crash course in survival Chinese before we did any more traveling. We’d later come to discover that we could get away with speaking English nearly everywhere we went – but I’m still so glad that we got the chance to get introduced to the basics of the language.

We decided to try out the Omeida Language Academy in the city of Yangshuo in Guangxi Province.

Quite a journey away from the northern peaks and deserts of Xinjiang, Guangxi shares its southern border with Vietnam and the South China Sea (the same sea that feeds the large bay that is home to the island where I’m sitting right now, actually 🙂 ). Geologically, Yangshuo also has a landscape in common with parts of northern Vietnam, with incredible karst landscapes that look as though they are ancient Chinese ink paintings of impossibly steep, knobbly, tree-covered hills and tranquil rivers sprung to life in vivid color. Lonely Planet also describes it as “family friendly” with “English speaking locals”, so we thought it might be a nice way to ease into China.

DSC 0321
Karst landscape around Yangshuo

Both Omeida and Yangshuo gave us warm welcomes. I’ll write more about Yangshuo later but for now let me sing Omeida’s praises.

It’s primarily a school to teach Chinese students English but they have a small and wonderful staff that teaches foreigners Chinese. The school is just outside of the touristy part of town, which suited us just fine. Accommodation was simple – a basic but clean room in an apartment building just round the block from the school itself.

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Lovely Anya

We arrived late from Xinjiang, but Anya, who was our contact at the school, and Lin, were awake and waiting to meet us despite the late hour when we arrived. They were so sweet and welcoming; everyone at Omeida was. We met our teacher, Becky, the next day, during a very brief placement text. (Can you read Pinyin (a version of written Chinese that used the Roman alphabet)? No? Do you know what this means? (a handful of words in Chinese) No? Can you read the Roman alphabet? Yes? Ok, well, we’ll start at the beginning then).

Becky eating pizza with chopsticks 🙂

She’s a fantastic teacher. Enthusiastic and demanding but easy going, with a propensity towards big, easy laughter. As challenging as Chinese is for a total beginner, it was miraculous how much we were able to learn in those two full but fast weeks at Omeida. Retention, without application, is another matter, but I’m still in awe of how much ground we were able to cover in the small amount of time, and I put it all down to her ability as a teacher.

I have to say, I was pretty intimidated about the prospect of learning a bit of Chinese. I thought I’d be frustrated and cursing the language and myself within days, but it wasn’t nearly as painful as I had expected. It felt funny to be a student again after so many years, but I got a kick out of it and I actually really like Chinese.

Ok so the pronunciation is killer. Those different tones are so subtle, and hearing the difference between words that are the same except for the tone is even harder than pronouncing them correctly. But I love the wonderfully direct and simple grammar, the way that words and sentences and meanings are built up and implied through the combination of single character words that have their own stable meaning, like solid, defined building blocks that can be arranged in an infinite number of ways to express all manner of things while retaining their own distinct form. Not at all like awful German grammar with its hundred rules and hundred exceptions, which alter words a thousand different ways, depending on gender, case, tense and which I seem utterly incapable of committing to memory!

Maybe some day I’ll have to spend more than just two weeks with the language – and see if I still like it then. I love the look of the characters as well, and the stories behind them. But there was no chance to learn any in such a short amount of time. It was enough to just get our heads around the Pinyin. Although I recognize the word “China” now (middle kingdom) and “shan”, which means mountain and rather looks like it: 山