Chinese Language Week: Learning a little Mandarin goes a long way for travellers to China

22 Sep 2019

OPINION: The "no tossing" notice in the busy Xi'an train station made me smile.

One of the few signs in English, I presumed it was designed to deter anyone tempted to take a short cut by throwing their suitcase over the barrier to avoid toting it down the escalator.

A visit to the western city of Xi'an was a reminder of how much the travel experience can be enriched by an ability to speak even a little of the language.

A visit to the western city of Xi'an was a reminder of how much the travel experience can be enriched by an ability to speak even a little of the language.
There is nothing quite like the challenge of negotiating a busy crowded Chinese railway station on a public holiday when you don't speak Mandarin and can't read many of the signs, so I was grateful to be travelling as part of a guided group attending a trade forum.

After a previous visit to China I'd promised myself I'd learn a few basic phrases if I ever returned.

Unfortunately the relatively last minute nature of my recent trip left those good intentions dead in the water, although I did bone up on pronunciation in an attempt to avoid totally mangling people's names.

That was not a lot of use when my lack of a sense of direction led me to become lost in Chengdu's enormous 3000-plus room Jinjiang hotel.

Asking the staff did not help as none of them spoke English, but I eventually managed to locate the right lobby (there were several) without resorting to the voice function on Google translate.

A fellow traveller and I were exploring the Muslim quarter in the city of Xi'an when she needed a toilet and used Google to ask a shop assistant "Can we use your bathroom?"

We were duly shown to a cupboard with a sink in it. After revising her request to "can we use your toilet?" we were kindly led up three flights of stairs to the ablution facilities.

It was about then I wished I'd memorised the helpful Mandarin phrases in the forum guide book.

The sign for Chengdu railway station is helpfully in English, but negotiating the busy transport hub can be tricky for for those who lack Mandarin.

The sign for Chengdu railway station is helpfully in English, but negotiating the busy transport hub can be tricky for for those who lack Mandarin.
Languages were always my thing and at various times I've learned Latin, French, German, and Italian.

Last year before holidaying in Europe I used the Duolingo app to teach myself some basic Portuguese so I could confidently order a glass of wine and a flat white.

I also went to Alliance Française classes to brush up French and was able to have some interesting discussions about politics and life in general with the French family stayed with in Bourges.

In China, I was therefore acutely aware of how much I was missing out on by being unable to engage with the locals other than saying "Ni hao" (hello) and "xie xie" (thank you).

Stuff senior reporter Amanda Cropp (far left) with the Chengdu families she interviewed through an interpreter about their holiday in New Zealand. "I appreciated the fact that some of them spoke English, and really wished I could have managed more than 'Ni hao' and 'Xie xie'." (Hello and thank you)

Stuff senior reporter Amanda Cropp (far left) with the Chengdu families she interviewed through an interpreter about their holiday in New Zealand. "I appreciated the fact that some of them spoke English, and really wished I could have managed more than 'Ni hao' and 'Xie xie'." (Hello and thank you)
That was especially true when I visited three Chinese families to talk to them about why they had chosen to holiday in New Zealand.

The younger members of the party spoke some English, but I still needed the services of a translator.

Even then, it would have been nice to be able to speak a little of their language in return for the effort they had made to converse in English.

Chinese marketing expert Jerry Clode has lived and worked in China for many years and he says making an effort to learn even a few words in Mandarin is essential for anyone planning to do business there.

"It is a form of cultural respect ... if we can't even belt out a few polite phrases, it doesn't say much about us, does it?

"Imagine the difference between having a translator talk for you the whole time, and pulling our your phone and talking about your family to your Chinese host. That would fundamentally change the dynamic of your relationship."

Learning some Mandarin can also assist when dining out in China.

The Muslim quarter in Xi'an is a riot of neon signs and mouthwatering street food, but finding a toilet can be a challenge for non-Mandarin speakers.

The Muslim quarter in Xi'an is a riot of neon signs and mouthwatering street food, but finding a toilet can be a challenge for non-Mandarin speakers.
At a traditional hot pot restaurant in Chengdu a diner who ordered a glass of wine was surprised to be served a small bottle of local sprit that was a head-blowing 30 per cent alcohol.

A tour guide later explained that it was common for "wine" to be used to describe alcohol other than beer.

So if I get to visit China again I will make sure my Mandarin extends to more than two phrases.

The author travelled to China with assistance from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

At a Hot Pot restaurant in Chengdu's Broad and Narrow Alley local knowledge was invaluable when it came to identifying raw ingredients, such as the duck intestine (lower right).

At a Hot Pot restaurant in Chengdu's Broad and Narrow Alley local knowledge was invaluable when it came to identifying raw ingredients, such as the duck intestine (lower right).