Five rules for interacting in Chinese: Master your Mandarin
By Lucy Wang
1. Answer Yes or No Questions Properly
In Chinese, answers to yes-or-no questions are based on whether the respondent agrees or disagrees with the asker, in contrast to similar questions in English:
Nǐ búshì běndì rénba, duì ma?
I don't think you are a local, are you?
Let's suppose the person being asked is not a local. In English, this question would usually be answered "No, I'm not." But in Chinese, it should be answered:
Right, I'm not.
One more example:
Wǒ xiǎng nǐ búshì xuéshēng ba, duìma?
I guess you are not a student, right?
Bù, wǒ shì xuéshēng.
Yes, I am a student.
The literal translation is "No, I am a student." Sounds strange? Here it means, "No, what you said is not right. I am a student."
2. Be Nosy—Be Familiar
I feel kind of shocked when my good friends say to me in Chinese, "你好 (nǐhǎo), Lucy." I know the translation for hello is 你好 (nǐhǎo) in Chinese. But what you may not know is that 你好 (nǐhǎo) is used in a formal situation, when you meet someone for the first time, or with somebody you don't know well. Friends don't use 你好 with each other. Instead, they say "去哪儿呀？" (qù nǎr ya/Where are you going?) So next time your Chinese friend asks you 去哪儿呀？ (qù nǎr ya), don't be surprised. Your friend is not really concerned with where you are going—it's just our way of greeting. Usually we don't greet people with "Good morning/afternoon/night!" But just as in English, a vague answer will suffice.
3. Be Humble and Modest
Humility and modesty are revered traits in Chinese culture, so when we are complimented, we react with a rejection of the compliment. When Chinese students are praised for speaking decent English, they're usually like, "No, no. My English is very poor." When Chinese compliment westerners on their Mandarin, they're usually like, "Thank you!"
Nǐde zhōngwén shuōdé zhēnhǎo!
Your Chinese is really good!
Nǎli nǎli, guòjiǎngle.
Not yet/not even close. I am flattered.
Nǐde chuāncài zuòdé zhēn hǎochī!
The Sichuan dish you cooked is really delicious!
Guòjiǎng guòjiǎng zuòde bùhǎo.
No, it's not that good. I am flattered.
4. Wait to Open Your Gifts
When Chinese receive gifts, they will put the gift aside rather than open it right away as it is considered more polite not to open a gift in front of the giver. I had a funny experience with giving out gifts once. During the Spring Festival time, I wrapped some homemade sausages in a plastic plate and gave it to my American friend. He said, "Oh, that's very nice of you. Thanks a lot." And then he just opened the plate and started eating! I stared in shock for a moment at his behavior. Next time you receive a gift, don't open it right away, and if you want to be really polite, you can say:
Zhēn shì bùhǎo yìsilā, rang nǐ pòfèile.
This gift must have cost you a lot. My bad. (Loose translation.)
5. Show (a Lot of) Concern
Sometimes westerners feel that they are over-welcomed in China. Have you ever mentioned that you're sick and heard in reply, "Are you okay? You should go to the hospital as soon as possible! Have you taken medicine? If not, I'll buy you some!" Actually that happened to a British friend of mine. Last week, he caught a cold so he canceled his classes. The same day, all of the Chinese teachers came to his apartment with flowers and food, and asked him, "Are you OK? Do you need to go to the hospital?" My surprised friend was like, "It's just a fever. Oh my gosh!" So next time if a Chinese friend asks if you need to go to the hospital, don't feel weird. Just say thanks. In return, when he or she is sick, you can show concern by saying:
Nǐ zěnmeyàngle? Tóu hái téng ma? Chī yào le ma?
How's it going? Still have a headache? Have you taken any pills?
Yàobùyào qù yīyuàn kànkan?
Maybe you need to go to the hospital.
Zhè jǐtiān hǎohǎo xiūxība.
Take it easy these days.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 54 ("museums").