The Ultimate Guide to Communicating in China
Communicating in China can be a big challenge, making China an intimidating destination to many people. Very few people speak English, and even if you learn some basic phrases it will be difficult for locals to understand you through your accent. Don’t count on your translation app either, because there are a dozen translations for every English word and apparently none of them make sense to locals! Using this guide, you’ll be able to get around, haggle, stay on track and communicate with people during your stay in China.
Forget The Translation Apps And Basic Phrases
I was prepared when I planned my trip. Communicating in China would be a challenge, but I had it covered. I had multiple translation apps, learned my basic phrases, and had all of my destinations written down with printed maps to accompany them. The written maps turned out to be the only useful item of those.
For some background, I grew up speaking multiple languages. I’ve been to many countries and have never really had much trouble getting my point across, even when neither I nor the locals had any languages in common. I feel like I have a good ear for pronunciation and learn languages quickly. That said, Mandarin was a total bomb in all of my attempts to use it.
I was aware that Mandarin is a tonal language and did my best to learn the sounds and where to put emphasis on words, but even the most basic phrases like xièxie (thank you) got me nothing but cocked heads wondering what jibberish I just spoke to them. I had the same experience with my translation apps, like Pleco. When having a broken English conversation with a local, I tried to tell them of a friend I had in Beijing. He didn’t understand that word, so I typed “friend” into Pleco and got 26 results, most of which had a Mandarin character with just the English word “friend” written underneath. I tried multiple options and it resulted in an extremely confused local who had no idea what I was trying to tell him.
Everyone always appreciates a foreigner who tries to learn the local language and culture, and I still recommend learning basic phrases and have an app or two to help, but just know in advance that these are fall backs and absolutely not your go-to means of communicating in China.
Do Your Paperwork
You’ve been a good planner and you’ve pre-booked all of your accommodation. You even know many of the activities you’ll be doing and where to go for them. Now it’s time to let other people know those things too!
The best way to easily point out your destinations is to make flash cards on 3×5 note cards. If your hotel or activity has a website, visit it and get the address in simplified Chinese characters. Don’t use Google Translate unless you want to end up in the wrong place; be sure to go to the CHINESE version of your hotel/activity’s website and get the address there. In addition, print out a small 2 inch by 2 inch map on the card showing where your destination is with some context of streets around it, as well as a picture of the building or activity.
Get Down To Business
Once you check in to your hotel, the first thing you should do at the front desk is pick up a few of their business cards. This will be an easy way for you to clearly tell your driver where you are going, and they’re very convenient to carry around as well! Some hotels in larger cities even have super helpful pre-printed cards with their hotel and the names of major attractions in the city so that all you need to do is point to where you want to go!
I Need Backup!
In addition to the note cards, it may be helpful to print either the front page or contact page of the website for your hotel or activity, whichever has a better photo that represents where you are going. This will be a good backup plan and point of reference in case your taxi driver doesn’t understand your note cards.
Learn A New Language
Sure, learn a few phrases in Mandarin, it goes a long way and earns you some good will when communicating in China. The language I’m referring to here, however, is Chinese number gestures. If you want to do any shopping or haggling, and you will if you take a single taxi, you’ll soon realize that the finger gestures we know and love won’t always mean the same thing in China. One through five will generally be the same as in western countries, but beyond that it’s quite different. Here’s a quick photo guide for the numbers six through ten in China:
Map It Out
The easiest way to know where you’re going is to get a Chinese SIM card for your phone. However, if you can’t, there are other options. If you have the Here Maps App, you can download cities for offline use, although sometimes the information is limited. Additionally, although Google Maps doesn’t seem to support downloading Chinese cities for offline use yet, you can still use your cache to keep an eye on places. Whenever I had wifi access I would look up my next destination in Google Maps and zoom in on any routes I planned to take. This way it was stored for later so that I could either point to a general area for taxi drivers and know that I was being taken the right direction.
Speaking Of Which…
One of my taxi drivers in Beijing thought he saw a sucker in me. Since I had my map of Beijing cached and knew the route from the airport to my hotel, I was quickly alarmed when he veered off the route and headed east. Bú! Bú! (No! No!) I emphatically yelled at him while pointing at my map. He completely ignored me and my pleas to stop the car. I thought I was being kidnapped!
I called my hotel immediately and explained the situation and they spoke to my driver. When I got the phone back, the hotel concierge said “don’t worry, he is just avoiding traffic.” Must have been some traffic to make him take a 2 hour route that should have taken 20 minutes! When we reached the very southern edge of Beijing and got slowed down by the cars there, my driver pointed at the traffic with a smile, as if trying to explain why he drove that way.
When I finally arrived at my hotel, the front desk explained to me that I had to give him the full amount because the driver was threatening to call the police. Not wanting trouble, I obliged. In the end, I still got scammed, but sometimes that happens when you travel. I don’t think my hotel was in on the scam as they saved my tail in other instances, but it was still a bummer. At least it made for a good story!
Bring Cash Everywhere
While this isn’t necessarily a tip related to communicating in China, this is still very important if you want to get around easily. China is still largely a cash-based society, and this rings especially true if you visit more remote areas. Obviously, bringing loads of cash for a long trip isn’t the most secure method of traveling. Thankfully, ATMs are prevalent in many areas of China and most take foreign cards. Just be sure to fill up your cash stores any time you visit a larger city if you are planning to visit VERY remote areas. Some of the hotels I stayed in were cash only, to give you an idea of how dependent on cash they are!
Stay Fee Free
There are several ways to avoid ATM fees and foreign transaction fees when withdrawing money in China. Here are some options according to who you bank with in the USA:
- Schwab banking accounts will refund any and all fees you incur, so no need to worry with them!
- Bank of America does not charge fees for withdrawals at any China Construction Bank ATM. This is what I used and found them to be fairly prevalent, although at times I had to go out of my way to get to one.
- Capital One 360 account holders can also use China Construction Bank fee free.
- Citibank has branches in all of the major cities in China, so it’s just like withdrawing at home!
If none of these are options for you, then you may need to bite the bullet and pay a few fees. If you take this route, be sure to take out enough cash to make the fee worth it, but not so much that you’re carrying around your life savings. You can find ATMs that match your card’s network via the Visa ATM Locator and the Mastercard ATM Locator tools. Whatever you do, DON’T TAKE A CASH ADVANCE on your credit card, the fees are absolutely enormous and it should only be a last resort in an emergency.
Pay Attention At The ATM
Chinese ATMs are, for the most part, very intuitive and easy to use. All of the ones I used had English menus and a logical interface. There are a few problems you may run into, however.
Many Chinese ATMs have very low limits of how much cash you may withdraw in a day, sometimes as low as 1500 RMB (around $225). This will sometimes result in your having to return a day or two in a row to withdraw enough cash to fund the next few days in a remote area.
The Dreaded Countdown
This is the big thing to look out for. Many of us are used to American ATMs that spit your card out to you before you even enter your PIN. Chinese ATMs hold your card until you are finished, and there is a very unassuming 30 second countdown in the corner of the screen. What you may not realize is that this timer is counting down the seconds until THE ATM SWALLOWS YOUR CARD AND KEEPS IT! It’s a security measure so that people who forget to withdraw their cards won’t get them stolen, but it can make for a huge headache for people who take their time.
Also, on the note of withdrawing your card, be sure to push the TAKE CARD button when you are done. Don’t spend time sorting your bills and tucking them in your wallet/travel pouch first, TAKE YOUR CARD.
As you may have already inferred, there’s a small chance I ran afoul of the countdown/take card feature and it may or may not have caused me to miss visiting the Great Wall and instead spend days in Beijing getting different answers from every bank representative I spoke with.
Last Resorts When Communicating In China
You’ve done well, you’re prepared and you have your game face on. As I mentioned before, communicating in China is a challenge regardless of how prepared you are. Thankfully, there are always things to fall back on.
Find A Friend
China is a big place and there are bound to be people who can translate for you somewhere in your vicinity. Some options are front desks of major hotels, other guests and visitors around your area, or, worst case, just yell out “English? Does anybody speak English?” in the middle of the street (warning: this may make you look crazy and make you a target for scammers). There are often English speakers in the larger cities, but if you’re on a remote mountaintop in China where people are literally lining up to take a picture of these rare white people who are visiting there, it may be more difficult.
Your Translation App
As I mentioned, it’s good to have them, but they really are a last resort. Mandarin translations seem to be VERY specific so a word that sounds normal to you will have 20 different translation options, most of which won’t make any sense at all in the context of your conversation. When I was there, I used (and generally failed miserably with) Pleco.
Google Translate At The Hotel Desk
At hotels that have internet access at the front desk, you can try getting your point across by going to google translate. Often times your first attempt won’t make any sense, but try a few approaches (shorter phrases work better) and eventually they may figure out what you’re trying to say.
Don’t Be Scared
In the end, unless you’re a regular or know the language a bit, communicating in China is one of the many challenges you will face on your visit there. Despite the challenging logistics of visiting, China remains one of my favorite destinations and I can’t wait to return.