Travel in China: 6 Phrases You’ll Hear as a Foreigner
After living in China a while, you start to notice that your conversations with strangers (or sometimes even people you know well) start to revolve around the same few topics. Mostly it’s just normal chit-chat you’d expect from anyone meeting a foreigner for the first time (for example, “What country are you from?”), but sometimes it can get really annoying to hear the same few questions every time you meet someone new. It can also be a real hindrance to learning the Chinese language if your level is beyond basic and you’d like to have real, meaningful conversations.
#1 “Wow, your Chinese is so good!”
This is the most common phrase you will ever hear from a Chinese person as a foreigner. Admittedly, it’s a very nice thing to hear—minus one caveat: usually you’ll hear it after uttering only one word in Chinese. It’s a phrase often said to people visiting the US also (disclaimer: I’m American), but we Americans usually abuse this phrase in an opposite way—we’ll say it to praise someone whose English is so obviously perfect that he or she probably should be teaching us English.
Other versions: “Holy &$#%! He can speak Chinese!” (Goes on to talk about you with his or her friend, as if you can’t understand them)
“Hey, his Chinese is better than yours!” (Mocks colleague, usually a speaker of Cantonese or another dialect)
#2 “Can you use chopsticks?”
This is one of those questions that’s acceptable if it’s your first week in China, but, after a while, you just wish it would go away. I recently watched China’s most popular dating show, and one of the foreign contestants had a race picking up ping pong balls with chopsticks. It made me think, “Would this be offensive in another context?”
Many people in China don’t know that people eat Chinese food regularly in the West. It’s a good way to continue the conversation!
Other versions: “You use chopsticks so well.”
“Where did you learn to use chopsticks?” (Even my wife asked me this one once)
#3 “Can you eat spicy food?”
Actually, this is a question not limited to foreigners. In fact, this will probably be the first sentence spoken after sitting down at a restaurant with a new friend. It’s not necessarily a way of gauging your bravery (although it could be); in Chinese traditional medicine, spicy food is a favorite culprit blamed for all kinds of ailments. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “No, I can’t right now.”
Another version: “Are you used to eating Chinese food yet?”
Believe it or not, some people may be genuinely surprised that you eat Chinese food on a regular basis—in China. You can really blow their minds if you tell them that you cook Chinese food at home too!
#4 “How much money do you make?”
This question is a little less common, but you should expect it. In the US, it’s extremely rude to ask someone’s salary (unless you’re good friends). I’ve asked around here in China about how this question is perceived, and most people seem to think it’s not all that polite. Nevertheless, there are a few brave souls out there who, when confronted with a foreign face, just can’t resist!
Similar questions: “How much money do people make in your country?”
“Why are you here? I heard people can make more money in your country.”
#5 “You shouldn’t drink cold water.”
Ah, yes, Chinese medicine—you haven’t lived here long enough if your supervisor hasn’t lectured you yet about how to stay healthy after calling in sick once or twice the whole year. You see, according to CTM (Chinese traditional medicine), you can get sick because your body is “too hot” or “too cold” or you were “outside in the wind.” Mostly you need to keep certain parts of the body warm at all times (which is why you’ll see people wearing socks with sandals), or avoid certain foods at certain times because they’re “hot” or “cold.”
It’s not advisable to try and argue this point. Many people in China can get really sensitive if you criticize CTM. Trying to explain things in terms of science won’t help either as you might start an argument about “Western science” versus “Eastern science,” or about how you “just can’t understand Chinese culture.”
Other forms: “Aren’t you cold?” (It may feel like a spring day to you, but your Chinese counterpart is wearing multiple layers)
“Foreigners are stronger than Chinese. Maybe you can drink cold water, but we can’t.” (Ah, but you’re “foreign” and therefore “different.” This is the farthest you can get in trying to convince a Chinese person that it’s OK to drink cold water)
After living in China for a while, you will give up though and start drinking warm water (if only to avoid constant criticism). Trust me.
#6 “Sorry, my English isn’t good.”
It’s common to hear this as a newcomer to China when trying to use English. However, as a long-term resident, you’ll often hear it after demonstrating that you’re perfectly capable of communicating in Chinese (and the speaker will often say it to you in Chinese as well!).
This is one of the most frustrating things for expats to hear in China. It often means the speaker just can’t get past the fact that you’re foreign, and the conversation is likely dead at this point. It’s also common for a Chinese person to reply to you using only broken English despite the fact that you are speaking to them using Chinese. This is a common language power struggle (please refer to John Pasden‘s excellent blog Sinosplice for more about this topic [and check out his company All Set Learning]). It’s also yet another reason why Chinese is so difficult to learn.
Of course, none of these compare to the real whopper I always hear in both the US and China:
Do you like China or America better?
There’s just no good way to leave everyone satisfied after that question, now is there?
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