Nǐ hǎo / 你好 (‘Knee how’)
There’s nothing like making a first impression and hello is as basic as it gets. It’s spelled Ni hao? and sounds like “Knee how?”
Zài nǎlǐ? / 在哪? (‘say na li’)
Meaning: Where is?
Seeking a toilet, subway or elevator? Simply use zài nǎlǐ? with the appropriate Chinese word or with body language (toilet should be fun) and you are good to go. When you find no restaurant (cāntīng) in sight, try Cāntīng (chan-ting) zài nǎlǐ?
Yǒu ma? / 有吗?
Now that you’ve found that restaurant, it’s time to slake your thirst. Stick the word for your preferred beverage in front of yǒu ma? to check its availability. Say you desperately need a beer (píjiǔ). That would be píjiǔ (pee-joe) yǒu ma?
Duō shǎo qián? / 多少钱? (‘dwoah shao chee-en’)
Meaning: How much money?
Before you get that beer, you might want to check on the price, in lieu of a menu. Nothing worse than being caught short of cash on your first day in Beijing. Simply ask Duōshǎo qián? That’s a tough one: dwoah shao (rhymes with wow) chee-en. If the total isn’t clear, a pen and napkin should make it easy enough to write down a number.
yào / 要 (‘yow’)
So, you have a beer but your friend prefers tea – chá. You could either ask using the word for “have” (yǒu) or could assume they have tea and use “want” (yào). Wǒ yào chá translates to “I want tea”. The word bù (boo) is negatory: think of it here as “not.” So you could get fancier and say, Wǒ bù yào píjiǔ. (I don’t want beer.) Wǒ yào chá. (I want tea.) How’s that for your first day of Chinese!?
tīng bù dǒng / 听不懂 (‘chim pu don’)
Meaning: I don’t understand
While you order, you might not understand everything that is being communicated. Keep nodding in agreement and you might end up with four cases of beer and two dozen dishes on the table. Tīng bù dǒng makes it clear you need more info.
Wǒ shì… rén / 我是… 人 (‘war shu ren’)
Meaning: I am [nationality]
Given your language skills, you will most likely, and not shockingly, be identified as an outsider. The wait staff or fellow patrons might well inquire about your nationality. Wǒ shì… rén means “I am… people”, with the ellipsis being the name of your country. Say you are from Canada (jiānádà). You would say Wǒ shì jiānádà rén (I am Canada people / Canadian). And if you’re from England (yīngguó)? Then it’s Wǒ shì yīngguó rén. If that’s too much, just leave off the I am (wǒ shì) and go with yīngguó rén (England people).
Hǎo / 好 (‘how’)
If you want to indicate your pleasure at the beer, the service or simply the fact you achieved something in a new culture, then hao is a good word. How about that beer (píjiǔ)? Hǎo. And the tea? Hǎo.
xièxiè / 谢谢 (‘shay shay’)
Meaning: Thank you
Saying thank you looks like it could be a tongue twister. Think of xièxiè as “shay shay” or, if you want to be a little more accurate, “she-eh she-eh” spoken fast.
zàijiàn / 再见 (tai je-an’)
Finally, with that beer and tea under your belts, it’s time to move on to the next adventure. Announce a zàijiàn, maybe throw in another xièxiè, and you’re on your way.