Chinese Phrases for the Advanced Traveler
I’m lucky to have done a fair bit of traveling in and around China. Twice now I’ve stayed the maximum length allowed on my tourist visa, and that’s not even counting the first trip I took – from the southern border to the northern border by rail.
I took the advice of many other travelers and studied Mandarin Chinese beforehand. I even purchased a tiny little phrasebook written by expats in China that was supposed to be the one-stop shop for all the Chinese you’d need on your trip. Maybe I used it wrong, or maybe the expats had different definitions of “essential Chinese phrases,” but in any case it wasn’t nearly enough for me. My Mandarin learning didn’t stop once I crossed the border – it had barely begun.
Of course, that’s to be expected. In an immersion environment, what language lover can resist studying hard and looking up all the things around them? And that effort didn’t go unrewarded.
If you’re traveling to China, a solid knowledge of essential phrases really will go a long way. More so than in any other country I’ve been to (28 and counting), travelers who speak no Chinese in China are missing out. Language opens doors everywhere.
So to accompany your other Chinese studies, I’ve prepared a small list of “advanced travel phrases” in Mandarin Chinese.
Useful Mandarin Chinese Phrases
你有卫生纸吗? (Nǐ yǒu wèishēngzhǐ ma?) – Do you have tissues?
This is an essential companion to “Where’s the toilet?” In Mainland China, it’s not particularly common for restrooms to stock toilet paper. Everybody gets used to carrying little packets of tissues along with them throughout the day – and if you run out, every shop and convenience store carries them.
你的护照呢? (Nǐ de hùzhào ne?) – Your passport?
As a foreigner, you’ll be asked for identification whenever you go to check in to a hotel, get on a train, buy tickets, or many other common travel situations. It’s good to be prepared for a request for your passport. In lots of other languages, “passport” sounds like its English equivalent, but not in Chinese!
常温还是冷的? (Chángwēn háishì lěng de?) – Regular temperature or chilled?
If you travel in China in the summer, you’ll want to stay hydrated during the blazing hot days. When you pop into a convenience store gasping for a bottle of water (一瓶水), the owner might respond with this question. Chinese people don’t often drink cold water on hot days, so it’s normal to offer people the bottles in the fridge or the bottles on the shelf.
你会吃辣吗? (Nǐ huì chī là ma?) – Do you eat spicy (food)?
It’s a strange question for foreigners, but you’ll get this one non-stop if you strike up conversations in the southwest of China where spicy cuisine reigns supreme. It’s fine to answer yes or no here since it’s just a polite inquiry about how you find the local food.
哪里可以打车? (Nǎlǐ kěyǐ dǎchē?) – Where can I get a taxi?
汽车站在哪里? (Qìchē zhàn zài nǎlǐ?) – Where’s the taxi stand?
I’ll never forget arriving in Xi’An south station in the dead of night and learning that I was still a half hour drive from the city proper. I went outside the train station and found only a lonely security guard on a deserted street. I asked him this question (as it’s kind of a tongue twister I had practiced it quite a bit beforehand) and he pointed me around a corner where dozens of taxi drivers were waiting. If I hadn’t known this phrase I might still be waiting at that station!
你刚才说的…是什么意思呢? (Nǐ gāngcái shuō de… Shì shénme yìsi ne?) – You just said… what does that mean?
The language enthusiast can’t live without phrases like this in their repertoire. If you’re having a Chinese conversation and your interlocutor uses some vocabulary above your level, whip out this phrase to check that you heard right and ask for the definition all at once.
这个字怎么读? (Zhège zì zěnme dú?) – How do you pronounce this character?
Learning Chinese in the classroom is all well and good, but when you step off the plane you may be dismayed to find that they really do use all those characters. Your textbook may have Pinyin annotations, but signs and papers around you rarely will. Use this phrase with Chinese friends or anyone nearby to find out what that noodle shop is really called once and for all.
这儿的Wi-Fi密码是多少? (Zhèr de Wi-Fi mìmǎ shì duōshǎo?) – What’s the Wi-Fi password here?
Tiny restaurants and cafes all have Wi-Fi nowadays. Interestingly enough, in my experience the password is usually a string of numbers instead of a word or name. That’s why this phrase literally translates to How much is the password? You’re not asking for a price, just the numbers. By the way, the connection speed is usually excellent, and you’ll often see people hanging out in tiny shops for a long times with their phones or computers plugged into the wall.
Of course, learning these common Chinese phrases is only the beginning. Each of them represents the potential beginning of a conversation. Unfortunately, if you only learn these phrases and neglect the necessary conversation practice, you might even be more frustrated than if you went traveling with no Chinese ability at all.
Chinese people are usually easily impressed by foreigners speaking Chinese and encourage them to speak more. So if your speaking fluency is limited to only a few phrases, you’ll see conversation after conversation grind to a halt. Sadly, I speak from experience here.
That’s why you can’t ignore learning in a holistic sense. Think about where you want these phrases to lead and prepare for that outcome. Ideally, when you start to have Chinese conversations, you’ll use these and other well-practiced phrases as anchors or jumping-off points for more general topics. The more exposure to natural Chinese you get, using resources like LingQ, the better you’ll be.
Highlight whole phrases like in the example above and they will turn yellow. The phrase will then appear yellow in all future lessons until you tell the system that you know it, then it has no colour. This way you learn these Chinese phrases through repeated exposure to interesting content. No need to memorize lists, with LingQ you learn from context in a meaningful way that actually makes the phrases stick. Sing up free today and start your journey to fluency with LingQ!
Alex Thomas has tried on dozens of languages and finds that Chinese fits very well. He has visited several of China’s provinces and cannot wait to see the rest.