Five Chinese Phrases to Get You By

We’re having a fabulous time hosting our dear friends here in Nanning, and decidedly tickled at the prospect of returning to Halong Bay via the overnight train to Hanoi this evening (a la our first remarkable trip to Southeast Asia last summer).

But the time in China with friends who don’t speak the language has got me thinkin’ on those little phrases that mean so much, that get you by with cultural finesse even when you’re a clunky foreigner living in well, a foreign country.

You can find men anywhere, anytime in China playing chess on street corners.

So with no further ado, here’s five Chinese phrases I’ve found to be particularly useful in these parts.

A familiar juxtaposition of traditional and modern architecture in China.


Bu hao yi si (不好意思)

That’s Chinese for sorry, or more woodenly, my bad!  Very useful when you botch someone’s name, spill something, etc. (can you tell who is a clunky foreigner here?!).  Chinese don’t usually apologize unless it’s something really shameful, but the bu hao yi sis are used as both nouns and verbs and pepper conversations like our ubiquitous sorrys.

Mei ban fa (没办法)

This one’s hard to translate, and incredibly infuriating if you’re on the receiving end.  Mei ban fa means basically you’re not going to get what you’re asking for because either the person in question can’t do anything about the situation or they just don’t want to!  It’s a great way to evade responsibility, but it’s also a handy one if you don’t want to go into a lengthy explanation for why something just can’t be done about that lousy leak under the sink or that visa paperwork.  Again, I guess I’ve been burned on the receiving end of these and am left a bit more bitter than I thought…

Wo you shi (我有事)

This little phrase is comparable to our Oh I’m sorry, I’ve got other plans.  It’s a wonderfully vague way of saying I’ve got other stuff to do, I’m not gonna be able to make it, and don’t ask me about the stuff, clearly it’s private, or I would tell you instead of saying, I’ve got stuff.  It’s amazing how sufficient and satisfying Chinese find this explanation.  For instance, someone might ask you why you weren’t at work or in class, and all you need say is, wo you shi and it’s all forgiven.  Wildly helpful, this one.

Wo kao lv yi xia (我考虑一下)

This phrase is handy in the event that you’re shopping, you’ve discovered prices are a bit higher than you’d like to pay and you’d like to get out without offending anyone.  Perhaps the shopkeeper is pestering you a bit.  Shoot him or her a simple wo kao lv yi xia, and you can slide right out of the store assured by a simple nod and no questions asked.  It means something like, I’ll consider it, and gets you off the hook with surprising speed, no questions asked.

Na li, na li?  (哪里哪里?)

Here’s your token response to the great undeserved praise that will be given to you for uttering a broken xie xie or ni hao.  Maybe your Chinese truly isn’t up to snuff, but when you respond to their false praise of your abilities with a na li na li, they will discover that you do indeed understand Chinese culture.  Westerners often find this response, which literally means, where, where? a silly and phony self-deprecating move, but I guarantee you your humility, however false, won’t be lost on your Chinese friends who will grin with pride at your ability to kowtow with the best of ’em.

A familiar sight in downtown Nanning.

And those my friend are just five little tips (of the iceberg as far as Chinese goes, though!) for your first trip to China.

What are yours?

All photos by Evan Schneider.

6 thoughts on “Five Chinese Phrases to Get You By

  1. But what about that Big Scary Monster of spoken Chinese – using the wrong tone? I’ve been told so many times that if you don’t get the tone just right, what you say will mean something completely different from what you intended. 😦

  2. 哪里哪里=不敢当(bu gan dang,more formal,means u don’t deserve what he/she said about u though u may deserve it)=过奖(guo jiang,means it’s overpraised;I’m flattered)

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