Study Abroad

10 Essential Phrases to Know Before Studying in China

Richelle Gamlam
Topic Expert

Richelle has been living, working, and teaching in China for the last four years, from high school English teacher to college admissions consultant.

You're about to study abroad in China. That's enough of a feat without having to worry about the language on top of the culture! Trust me, I studied abroad in Beijing and Xi'an four years ago, and language was one of the things I worried about most.

One of my favorite books, Lost on Planet China by Maarten Troost, describes Chinese as “the great wall of languages” because it’s designed to keep foreigners out. The pronunciation and tones combined make it really difficult for English speakers to learn, even if you’re taking a daily Chinese class like I did throughout college.

I studied abroad in Beijing and Xi'an four years ago, and language was one of the things I worried about most.

If you're studying abroad in China, chances are you know some of the basics. Because of this, I'm going to focus a little more on conversational and cultural Chinese you'll learn outside of the classroom.

If you're brand-new to the language, you may want to start with my Quick Guide to Mandarin Chinese to learn the basics before you start on this more advanced material.

If you prefer to read, rather than watch, this mini-lesson, scroll on for a written version (not a direct video transcript) below:

1. Nǎlǐ nǎlǐ

  • Literal meaning: Where? Where?
  • Intended meaning: Who? Me?!

Many of you may already know that it's somewhat impolite to accept a compliment in China. Rather than saying "thank you" the older generation often said "nǎlǐ nǎlǐ" instead. While the direct translation is "where? where?" this basically means, "where? who are you talking about? obviously not me!"

While it's a bit outdated, I still use the phrase "nǎlǐ nǎlǐ" all the time in China. This is because I often receive more compliments than I'm used to getting back home. When I run out of other phrases like "oh, of course not" or "you're too kind" I usually throw in an overly sincere "nǎlǐ nǎlǐ". This results in a lot of laughs. "Where did you learn that?!" people will ask.

2. Ài ya!

  • Literal meaning: Oh my!
  • Intended meaning: an exclamation used for surprise, astonishment, and frustration

People of all ages use "ài ya!" as an exclamation. Possibly the most common exclamation in China, "ài ya!" can be used for everything from surprise and astonishment to frustration and annoyance:

  • Did you just drop something? "ài ya!"
  • Are you surprised to see your favorite tea stand? "ài ya!"
  • Is your back sore from walking around the Forbidden City all day? "ài ya..."

I have to admit, after a few years in China I've adopted this phrase as my constant companion. I've found that it puts a smile on the face of any local who hears me. Look at that foreigner using a Chinese exclamation!

3. Jiè guò yī xià

  • Literal meaning: Excuse me a moment
  • Intended meaning: Excuse me, let me through!

China is crowded. If you're studying in Beijing or Shanghai you'll constantly be surrounded by people, and sometimes you just need to get through. What's a polite way to tell people to step aside as you push through a crowd or squeeze out of the subway? "Jiè guò yī xià" is the nice version of "get out of my way!"

It's important here to note you might need to give your surrounding locals a little shove as you say the phrase. Don't worry about coming off as impolite. It's not rude to push a little bit in China, and your words will offset your light shove.

4. Suí biàn

  • Literal meaning: Casual
  • Intended meaning: "as you like" or "whatever/whichever"

One of my friends recently told me a joke using the phrase "suí biàn":

A couple is heading out to dinner and the boy asks where she'd like to go. "Suí biàn", she responds. "Okay, how about Sichuan?", "Oh, I don't like spicy" she replies. "Alright, well where would you like to go?", "Suí biàn" she says again. "Well... how about pizza?" he suggests. "Oh, I'm on a diet I can't eat that." she responds. "I have no more ideas!" he exclaims. "Where do you want to go?", "Oh... Suí biàn" she says again.

"Suí biàn" which literally means "casual" is most commonly used as a polite way of saying "whatever you want" or "anything is fine with me". I have to admit I use this all the time in China, even when I'm speaking English! It's such a useful phrase.

You may find that your Chinese friends or roommate will ask you where you'd like to eat, or if you have any suggestions for the day. As a study abroad student, I liked to take the lead from my local friends. After all, they're much more familiar with the city, the culture, and the food. Not wanting to be impolite, I'd often say "suí biàn" and suggest they choose. Letting my Chinese friends take the lead often lead to amazing experiences and delicious meals... except for that one time my friend ordered bull penis.

5. Zhēn de ma?

  • Literal meaning: Really?
  • Intended meaning: Can be used for surprise, astonishment, or annoyance

A casual conversational phrase, "zhēn de ma?" can be used for a variety of circumstances, just like the English phrase "really?".

  • One of your Chinese friends admits he's never left China before. "zhēn de ma?"
  • The test has been postponed a week. "zhēn de ma?!"
  • Someone stops walking right in front of an escalator to answer a text, blocking literally twenty people from using it. "zhēn de ma??!"

If you're heading to Taiwan, be sure to use the phrase “zhēn de jiǎ de?" which literally means "real or fake?" The Taiwanese and a few provinces in Southern China use this phrase instead of the traditional "zhēn de ma?" and your Chinese friends will sure be impressed when you whip it out!

6. Bùyào yìsi

  • Literal meaning: Embarrassing
  • Intended meaning: Excuse me or sorry

If you've taken Chinese in school, I'm sure you've learned the phrase "duìbùqǐ" (对不起) which means "I'm sorry". However, it wasn't until a few months into my study abroad experience that I realized Chinese people rarely say duìbùqǐ! "Bùyào yìsi" is a much more common and casual phrase that you'll use constantly in China.

The first way to use "bùyào yìsi" is a form of "excuse me". This is great for when you're about to stop someone on the street to ask for directions, or as you're bumping past people on the subway.

A second way to use "bùyào yìsi" is as a mild form of sorry. Think of "bùyào yìsi" as "sorry!" and "duìbùqǐ" as "I'm so sorry!". If you spill someone's drink or step on a person's foot you should probably say "duìbùqǐ", but if you lightly bump into someone or have to squeeze past a person on the bus, "bùyào yìsi" is more than fine.

7. Nǐchīfàn le ma?

  • Literal meaning: Have you eaten?
  • Intended meaning: How are you?

It took me a while to fully comprehend this phrase. I understood that "have you eaten?" is a Chinese way of asking "How are you?" but I never quite knew what my response was supposed to be. Are you really supposed to tell people if you've eaten, or are you supposed to tell them how you are?

Well you know how when you ask someone "How's it going?" or say "Hey, how are you?" you aren't really asking how they are, it's just small talk. Same with "Nǐ chīfàn le ma?". While they are asking if you've eaten, the phrase is purely small talk. You can answer yes, or no; either is fine! This is just the Chinese way of expressing concern and starting a conversation with you.

8. Āyí

  • Literal meaning: Aunt
  • Intended meaning: Aunt, maid, or "auntie"

One thing you'll learn very quickly in China is that everyone is an "aunt", "uncle", "brother" or "sister". To your teacher's child you'll be an "older sister". While walking down the street, an old woman might tell their grandchild to "wave to auntie!"

Sometimes it's complicated to determine if you're an "older sister" or an "auntie". As a student, I was usually an "older sister" but when I taught English abroad, I was "auntie" to my co-workers' young children. However, if my co-worker is significantly older than me, and the child is grade-school aged, I might be an "older sister" instead.

The interesting thing about "auntie" or "Āyí" is that it is also applied to maids as well. When I studied abroad we had ayi's who cleaned our dorms once a week and washed the sheets. I currently live in an apartment where our "Āyí" comes in twice a week to clean and do laundry (yes, I know I'm spoiled), and my office has two ayi's as well. Calling your maid an "auntie" is just a more respectful and familiar title, one that makes cleaning ladies feel like part of the family.

9. Màn man chī

  • Literal meaning: Eat slowly
  • Intended meaning: Bon appétit!

When I first arrived in China, I couldn't figure out why everyone kept telling me to eat slower. Let's be honest, Chinese people are some of the fastest eaters on this planet!

It wasn't until a few months into my program that I finally asked why everyone was telling me to eat slower. Apparently that's not the meaning at all! "Eat slowly" is really just a nice way of saying "enjoy your food!"

You may also hear people tell you to eat more, saying "Nǐ duō chī yīdiǎn," which really means "have some more!" I can't tell you how many times my Chinese friends and co-workers have told me to eat more, or have stated that I barely ate anything at the end of a meal. When I attest that no, I actually stuffed my face, they always disagree.

I finally learned that this is really just a way of being a good host. Chinese people want you to feel comfortable and full, and will encourage you to keep eating until your stomach literally bursts. It doesn't help that your friends will probably order five dishes for just the two of you to share. Seriously, I'm not kidding.

10. Màn zǒu

  • Literal meaning: Walk slowly
  • Intended meaning: Take care!

The first time I heard "màn zǒu", I was getting my master's abroad in China. My Chinese classmates and I were at an academic conference in Chongqing, and our driver who picked us up from the airport kept repeating "màn zǒu", "màn zǒu" as we walked to his car. I figured he was telling us to be careful and walk slowly since it was raining.

However, as time passed I started to hear it everywhere! As I was leaving a shop or a restaurant, getting out of a taxi, leaving a friend's apartment, I'd constantly hear "màn zǒu!" Finally, I realized, "màn zǒu" is just another way of saying "take care!"

Once I discovered this little Chinese language secret, I couldn't get over how polite everyone in China seemed to be. I felt like they were really looking out for me, telling me to take care and have a nice day. When you study abroad in China, you can use the phrase yourself too. Say it to your teacher as she leaves the classroom, or your roommate as he heads out for the day. Trust me, people will take notice!

Bonus: Bye Bye!

Surprise! Here's one more phrase you should know before studying abroad in China!

In your Chinese class I'm sure you've learned that "zàijiàn" (再见) is the Chinese word for "goodbye". However, it wasn't until I studied abroad that I learned "zàijiàn" is rarely used in China. Chinese people use "bye bye" instead!

At first I thought people were only saying it to me as a foreigner in the same way that everyone knows "hello", but after a few weeks, I realized that Chinese people say it to each other too. Rarely do I ever use "zàijiàn" now. Bye bye works just as well and is much less formal.

Are You Ready to Study Abroad?

There you have it, ten essential Chinese phrases (and one bonus phrase) to get you through your time abroad!

Trust me, I know that studying abroad in China can be intimidating. While I'd had a year and a half of Chinese before I studied abroad, I could barely speak outside of the classroom. It wasn't until I made Chinese friends and put forth the effort outside of class that I really started to see results. Put yourself out there, practice your conversational Chinese and you'll be fluent in no time!