I travelled solo to China for a two week stint on a lap around the world, and what a crazy part of my trip it was! I was fortunate to have retained some language skills from studying Chinese for six years through middle and high school. There was one point in my life when I would have considered myself fluent, able to completely navigate my way around the country.
Fast forward five years and I would rate my abilities at a barely proficient conversational ability. Reading and writing were difficult because I only retained the most common words and had to use a lot of context to understand. I faced many challenges during my two weeks in China, and I have created a collection of the most important words you need while in the country.
This dictionary is something I wish I would have had, and something I will be bringing the next time I go. I will also include other travel tips for navigating, eating, daily activities, and venturing into this enormous country.
You can download my survival dictionary for FREE here >>>
Money | Food | Transportation | Housing | Greetings | Emergency | Numbers
THIS was one of the first challenges arriving in China. I had mistakenly felt confident in my abilities to navigate with my current language abilities, however I had never learned or retained the vocabulary necessary to work an ATM!
The ATM interfaces look a lot different in China and have a lot more buttons and menus than western ATMs. I was standing at the airport ATM trying buttons until I figured out how to get cash out. Some ATMs are more user friendly than others, but it helps to be prepared if they are not available. Of course converting currency before entering the country is a great way to prevent getting stuck like me. I had planned to use my Charles Schwab card because it had zero ATM fees instead of loosing a few bucks to currency exchange fees.
If you can get to your native language menu that is the best, but if you get into a situation where you cannot figure it out look for these key characters to identify the right options!
Food is the next most important thing besides accessing your money! My language skills held up during this part of communication and you don’t want to miss out on the diverse array of food options. People will usually understand what you want if you also include gestures or point at menu pictures. The most important thing I learned is to make sure you are able to communicate basic sizes, dishes, and prices to get what you want.
Transportation is a completely new experience in China and sometimes you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. I kept finding myself following crowds and the general flow of people when switching subway lines or connecting through station terminals. This worked almost every time and gave me enough time to figure out where I needed to go.
Housing in China offers a lot of options, at extremely different price points. I stayed at hostels as I traveled and many options are located less than a few blocks from central train stations and major stops. I suggest booking your housing close to the transportation lines to make it more easily accessible, especially if you have limited transportation options or money.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from locals or workers. As a foreigner, if you use any Chinese they will be highly impressed and even more likely to help you! The best way to practice and improve your conversational skills is by talking with real people. The first three days after arriving in China I refused to speak to anyone. I don’t know if it was out of fear, comfort, anxiety, no idea. I could understand what people were saying, but completely relied on pointing and gestures communicating like a child. After a few days of immersion everything came rushing back and my conversational abilities greatly improved. I felt a lot more comfortable getting around and talking with people in Chinese. Looking back I think I was experiencing culture shock.
Anywhere you travel it is important to know a few words that can help you in any situation you may find yourself. Some words may even save your life if you get into trouble. Use these if you need to get help fast, people will respond even without sentences behind them.
Obviously if you don’t know any Chinese prior to traveling to China it is going to be challenging. Communication with be especially difficult if you are in rural areas, but will even be challenging if you’re outside of the main tourist city hubs. Just remember all humans will respond to gestures and finger counts as a communication fallback. Basic numbers will be helpful for ordering food, buying tickets, counting stops, telling time, understanding prices, and reading dates.
Number 2 in a sentence format
2021, September, 20
二零零十一 年 , 九月, 二十号
Èr Líng Líng Shí Nián, Jiǔ yuè, Èr Shí rì
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