Surviving China 101: The Three Words You Need

Welcome to China.

The plane will land and you’ll feel like you’re drowning in a sea of vowels, flecked with the odd consonant. Waves of noise will crash into you with nothing to grasp onto.

Most of your time will be spent like a giraffe*: technically capable of making sound, but none of it will be intelligible. So what’s an illiterate mute to do?

Some of my friends have been here for years – years – and still speak less than a poorly trained parrot. Here’s how they survive:

Yào – Want

Pronunciation: yow (descending tone)

The grammar surrounding this word can be confusing, but if you use it while pointing at things, people will understand. Want! Want!

In Chinese, yes and no don’t really exist. The closest they have is or not is, but that’s still not the same as a universal affirmative/negative. If you are asked “Do you want this?” You’d think “Yes. Yes, I do” but in Chinese, instead, you would say “want” to confirm that the want exists.

In other words, they will use a verb in a question, and then you’re (generally) supposed to respond back the same verb as confirmation. Want! Want!

How about if you don’t want something?

Bù – Not / General Negation

Pronunciation: boo (descending tone)

Now you have the closest thing to the word “no”. Put in front of any verb and you’ll make it into it’s opposite. You say “Yào!” pointing to fried tofu. Maybe they point to the stinky tofu. You’ll say “bù!”, correcting their horrible mistake. This is the easiest way to function when you’re a nearly-mute foreigner. What you’re literally saying is “not”. Someone says “do you want this greasy man to rub your legs?” Bù yào! Not want!

How about if you ask for one thing and they hand you the wrong thing. You could survive by just saying “not want!” but they might get confused. You did ask for it, but now you seem to have grown fickle out of the blue. Perhaps they get annoyed. How do you make it clearer?

Zhè ge – This

Pronunciation: jiggah (descending tone)

When pointing alone doesn’t get the idea across, you’ll whip out your final, essential word: Zhè ge. After you grow tired of feeling like an impetuous child crying “want!” over and over, you can form the semblance of a full sentence. “Yào zhè ge” means “I want this”. You don’t have to use a pronoun because they’ll assume you’re speaking for yourself. If you’re speaking for your friend, you’ll definitely need more than three words, so let’s just assume you don’t have any.

Here’s an example: You ordered the well-carved statue and they hand you a deformed lump. “Bù yào zhè ge!” you can say, pointing to your malformed turd. “Yào zhè ge!” you can say, now pointing to the professional product. They’ll tell you it’s just for show, but if you keep saying “want, want” they’ll either sell it to you, or you’ll have to end the exchange in a “not want” and hit the


Wondering how you’ll understand the prices of things? Don’t. Most shop owners will simply plug digits into a calculator to display the damage, or maybe they’ll use their fingers.

You could probably even survive with the first two words alone, but it was so widely recommended to add zhè ge that I couldn’t exclude it. So there you have it, you’re now linguistically ready for a trip to China.

*Giraffes necks make it very difficult for them to push enough air through their voice box, so they hardly ever use them. Some scientists think their sound frequencies are too low for us to hear.

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