How to Survive in China Without Knowing How to Speak Chinese

I write about travel, my experiences in China, psychology, culture, recipes, and other random subjects.

A picture of me somewhere in Wuhan.

A picture of me somewhere in Wuhan.

How to Survive in China Without Being Able to Speak Chinese

I know what you're going to say. Wesley, if you're going to live in China, you should learn Chinese. Yes, of course. I do agree with you on this. Anyone living in China for any length of time should make the attempt to at least learn the language. This is the same thing people often say about foreigners living in America. It is a logical and practical view of things. A person should make an effort to learn the language of the country they're living in.

Start Learning Chinese Before You Go

The ideal situation would actually be to begin learning Mandarin Chinese a few months at least before you get on the plane to go to China. This is the most practical course of action. But what if you can't plan that far ahead?

I myself had every intention of going to other parts of the world. I didn't know that I was coming to China until about two weeks before I left America. During those two weeks, I was a very busy person between giving notice at my job, taking care of my visa and dealing with some family matters. I didn't have time to begin studying the language. I didn't even have time to think that it was a good idea.

Learning a Language Isn't Quick and Easy

Also, for some of us, the learning comes slow. It isn't exactly easy to learn a second language, no matter how many promises you hear from language-acquisition companies.

While the idea of immersion in a given language is supposed to increase learning speed the reality is that you still have to be proactive. Learning any language takes time, hard work and a bit of dedication.

So How Do You Live in China Without Learning Chinese?

This is a simple question that I often hear from my students here in China as well as from people back home. If you don't know how to speak Chinese, how do you manage to live in China?

The answer is that it isn't easy, but it can be done. In fact, it may well be easier than you think. This article is meant to answer that question. It is also meant to help in some way people who may find themselves in a country where they don't speak the language.

The following list of tips can help a person who doesn't speak Chinese or much Chinese survive more easily.

8 Tips for Living in China Without Knowing Chinese

1. Make friends with other foreigners who speak Chinese.

There are many foreigners living in China who are studying Chinese or working as an English teacher. If they've been in China for a while odds are they can speak a bit of Chinese. Depending on why you are in China it should be fairly easy to meet them. Many of the foreigners you meet will offer you help if you need it.

Foreigners living in China will often also have suggestions about how to study Chinese and what works best for them.

2. Make friends with Chinese people who speak some English.

This will be easy. Chinese people who are learning English will often try to meet you. They'll approach you on the bus, in shops, at work or school. After you've been in China for a while it may even seem annoying how often some people will approach you trying to practice their English.

If you are teaching or studying in China, you may often be invited out by co-workers or students. Accept a few invitations and be friendly. The Chinese friends you make will often offer to help you in situations where you need someone to interpret.

3. Buy a cellphone.

It doesn't need to be an expensive phone. A cheap 230 RMB phone might be the best investment you make in China. With a cheap cell phone, you can save text messages that you can use later.

Have one of your Chinese friends send you a text with your address in both Chinese characters and in English. The English should be at the bottom. This will allow you to quickly identify the correct message you need.

If you are trying to get home by taxi and the driver doesn't understand you or if you don't remember the address, you can show him the saved text message. While a cheap phone is all you need, a smartphone can make things even simpler.

4. Carry a small phrasebook.

Mandarin-English phrasebooks can be invaluable. These will usually have expressions written in English, Chinese pinyin and Characters. You should always attempt to say what you want in Chinese first using the pinyin as a guide. If people don't understand you can point to the characters for the word.

5. Pay attention to body language.

I have often gotten directions from people without being able to understand the words that they were speaking. If you show someone an address and know how to ask where the place is, then stand back and watch what they do with there hands you will find that you can infer much of the information from the gestures they use while telling you the location.

6. Use empty packages.

An empty box can speak for you. If you've run out of something, you can carry the empty package to the store. This is especially good for medicines. Showing a person at a store or pharmacy an empty box is usually a lot quicker and easier than struggling with them not understanding what you're asking for. You'll also be certain that you've gotten the right thing.

7. Stay patient.

Finding yourself in a new country where you are suddenly both illiterate and unable to speak or understand people who are speaking to you can at times be frustrating. It can also present you with a few challenges you may never have previously imagined.

In many cases, you will still be able to communicate with the people around you, but doing so may take a bit more time than normal.

8. Try to learn the language.

Learn as much as you can. Just because you don't know Chinese doesn't mean that you can't learn it. And while learning may be slow, picking up a few choice phrases will carry you a long way.

Listen to what people say to you in public. Ask your friends how to say things. Learn the names of your favorite Chinese dishes. Pick up a learning program like Berlitz, Pimsluer or ChinesePod. Each little phrase you learn will exponentially open up your ability to communicate with the people around you.

These eight things make living in China without knowing Chinese much easier. The downside to this is that most of these may also make it easier not to learn Chinese. For people who are genuinely interested in learning Chinese, I would make the following suggestions.

5 Tips for Learning Chinese in China

1. Don't rely too heavily on your friends.

I've done it and I've seen others do it. A group of friends will sit down at a table in a restaurant and after deciding what they want everyone looks at the persons whose Chinese is the best. It is usually someone who has been in the country for a few years. This same person is almost always the one who orders. By relying on this friend to do all the ordering no one else needs to learn anything.

2. Study a little every day.

I've taken Chinese classes that were two hours long twice a week at a language center. The classes were free and I'm not willing to pass up anything free. We covered a lot of material in a short amount of time. I filled a notebook full of useful Chinese phrases with English explanations. Do I remember any of it? Not really.

More recently I've begun listening to 30-minute lessons on my MP3 player. I listen to the same lesson several times a day while walking to work, sitting on the bus, or in between classes. I also listen to the same lesson several days in a row. I've covered very little material but I remember most of it and have started using some of it in my daily life.

3. Use what you learn.

If you learn an expression in Chinese, then use that expression with your Chinese friends. It will make them happy to hear it and it will help you to remember it. Often they will try to help you with your pronunciation or try to teach you something else.

4. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

If you can express an idea or a question this is good. Don't get hung up on trying to find the right word or having the perfect pronunciation. If people can understand your meaning that is good enough.

5. Don't get frustrated if every Chinese person doesn't understand your Chinese.

They often don't understand each other. While traveling together some of my Chinese friends have told me that they couldn't understand the local people in some areas. That may sound strange but this is usually because of differences in dialect.

You might say something perfectly and the person you are speaking to may still not understand. Don't let this bother you. Context often helps in these situations. Try repeating the same thing while focusing more on the tones of the word. Most of the time when someone doesn't understand me it is because I have the wrong tones. They may eventually understand or another Chinese person may understand and help you out. Just be patient and keep trying.

© 2012 Wesley Meacham


FlourishAnyway from USA on October 13, 2015:

You are so brave, and these tips are excellent. I'm not sure I'd have the gumption to do this, but I salute you! This is a great hub deserving of HOTD.

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on October 13, 2015:


Thanks for commenting.

It's funny you say that. I had Spanish in college but only did well enough with it to barely pass the classes. That was over ten years ago and I haven't really looked at Spanish since then. Occasionally today, when I am trying to think of how to say things in Chinese, the Spanish phrases are what will pop into my head. I've had the thought several times that it would be much easier to go back and study Spanish. It's something I've always wanted to do anyway. Chinese is hard but I think Asian languages in general are a bit more difficult for us.

Virginia Kearney from United States on October 13, 2015:

Great advice. I've traveled in China 4 times. The last two times my husband and I traveled primarily on our own and used the Chinese we'd studied and all of the techniques you suggest. We really found it possible to live and travel in China but you have to be prepared for some surprises. We found ordering in restaurants interesting at times, even if there were pictures to look at. But if you view travel and living in another culture as an adventure, it is fun. By the way, we had studied on our own (using some of the types of tapes you describe) for about 4 years before our last trip and our Chinese was still very rudimentary. In contrast, we went to Costa Rica this last summer and managed to hold whole conversations with people even though we have actually done much less studying of Spanish and no real preparation before the trip. Chinese is just tough!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on October 13, 2015:

Wesley, this was a great hub. Real interesting to know about living in China without speaking their language. Congrats on HOTD!

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on October 13, 2015:

Wow, what a surprise. I was just thinking the other day about back to Hubpages and revising some of these old articles.

I'm still in Wuhan. Have been here for five years now. My Chinese, while dismal, has improved a bit since I wrote this.


Thank you. Glad you liked the Hub.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on October 13, 2015:

Congratulations for HOTD!

Very interesting, helpful and useful hub! Learning another language is time consuming and difficult and you have provided some interesting tips for one to survive --in this case in China at least in the initial days.

Thank you for sharing!

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on June 02, 2013:

VirginniaLynne, hi and thanks for commenting. I've used Pimsleur and Chinesepod both. They're great programs. However... sometimes I'll use a phrase or a word that I've learned from Pimsleur and all my Chinese friends will laugh and tell me to say something else instead. Usually it's harmless and I think that part of the reason is that Pimsleur's content is a little old. Having said that I still think it's great and currently I listen to it everyday. I also have found that Memrise.org is very useful for learning characters. Again, thanks and I'm glad you liked the hub.

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on June 02, 2013:

Mike, thanks for commenting. Learning Chinese is very time consuming just as you mentioned. I personally find it very frustrating. At the same time though I still think it is best to learn as much as you can. Currently the ideas I've listed here I try to use as a "plan B." I try to learn how to say want I want first and then when people don't understand me I pull out my cellphone and show them the text. Thanks again for commenting and I'm glad you found this useful.

Virginia Kearney from United States on May 30, 2013:

Great ideas--I've traveled in China and have studied Chinese but hadn't thought of some of your ideas. I'm planning a trip now for my family and will use your thoughts. We've done lots of podcast studying and Pimsleur which I've reviewed on HubPages, but still will need these hints! Right now I'm trying to figure out how to rent/buy phones before we go. Maybe we will wait until we get there.

Mike Robbers from London on May 28, 2013:

Useful hub and most interesting tips. Learning a language, in that case Chinese, is time consuming and difficult so you have provided some interesting ways for one to survive during his first steps there.

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on April 09, 2013:

You need to add a picture to your resume in China as well. But it's still fairly easy to find a job here.

Vero on April 09, 2013:

Absolutely true, there you have to send your Resume with an actual picture and they have to see you first (and how you look is important). But there are many private schools that teach english and also the classes are all in english, I dont't know if the salary is gonna be good for you but is enough to live there I think. Good for you, I see you like to travel and try different cultures!. I hope if we go to China I can find something to do and a good school for my son. Is very nice to talk to you and good luck with the spanish!

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on April 09, 2013:


Oh I have a friend who works at Disney English. She says it's great. She loves it. Its a good place to work if you enjoy working with children. If he prefers to work with adults then New Dynamic or Wall Street might be better. He should also consider public schools. The pay is less but there is more vacation time.

Funny thing is, when I got my TESOL certification I actually wanted to go to South America. I wanted to study Spanish and I've always wanted to visit Machu Pichu. At the time though my Job Placement Advisor told me that South American countries prefered in-person interviews. I didn't have the cash to fly to a country without having a job lined up first. It is very easy to find a job in China though. I was hired by a school two weeks before I left the US. That was the only reason I came here instead.

I can't complain though. The people in China can be great and I've seen and done a lot of wonderful things. And who knows... maybe in a few years I'll make it to South America as well.

Vero on April 09, 2013:

Your help is invaluable for me, I'm still thinking about the idea and my bigger concern is my son. My husband is looking for information yet about the health insurance, the place to work (maybe Disney) and lots of more stuff that I told him. The posibility to know a new country, language and culture is gonna be so important for us but more for my son so I think is gonna be more possitive than negative. I'll write you if we decide to go!. And the traffic I think I can handle that, I'm Peruvian and in my country is something like that so I have to be more careful than here in USA. I read many great comments about the people in China so I'm more like Yes than No...... Thank you again!

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on April 09, 2013:

Vero, thanks for commenting.

The area of Wuhan that I live in is Hanyang. This is the major industrial area of the city and there are a lot of car manufacturers here. Because of this there are a lot more foriegners in this area than in other parts of the city. Most of them are French but there are also a few Germans and many Americans. In this area most of the foreigners work for the car companies and it is not uncommon for them to bring there whole family with them to China. I've also heard of other teachers bringing their children with them.

With a 4 year old the only thing that I would be worried about is traffic. To be honest, I'd worry about this with adults as well. If you are walking through a crosswalk do not expect cars to stop for you like they do in America, even if you have a green light.

Don't let that discuorage you though because honestly I think you'd be fine. Many other foriengers are raising there children here. There are also several mixed couples I know who either have children or who are planning to have children. Also, if your husband will be working at one of the international schools you may find that there are other teachers who have young children with them as well. Yes it is a very different country and there will be many things that you will likely find strange and even frustraiting but it is also a great opportunity and in the end you will likely find it to be a very rewarding experience.

I hope that you come to China. I doubt that you'll have any regrets if you do. My only regret is that I hadn't come sooner.

Thank you.


Vero on April 08, 2013:

Thanks Wesley, I think in my case is gonna be a little more tough, my language is spanish and still learning english, my husband is american and got an opportunity to work teaching english in an international school in China for one year. I'm scared to go there because is a very different country and I'm not sure if is gonna be good for our 4 year old son. The information you gave me is amazing in case we go there, accoding your experience what do you think about China for a 4 year old and teaching there? Thank you again.

Robert Clarke from UK on March 02, 2013:

Useful hub. I was in China for a month and travelled on the bus a few times. I found it useful to write out (or ask the chinese people at my hostel) to write out my destination or directions in chinese to show to people when I got lost. Worked a few times otherwise I'd have been really stuck

Sam on February 25, 2013:

These are some good tips for those that can't speak Chinese in China. If you have a smartphone or camera, it's easy to take pictures of common things (foods, signs, places) for quick reference. I've heard this helps a lot.

Also, there are companies in China that offer real-time translation. Just call their hotline and they can help get you out of a mess. I know trip-per.com offers one of these services, plus rentable smartphones.

But, of course, learning Chinese is a worthwhile endeavor and if you're in China for some time, I'd recommend learning as much as possible. You'd be surprised how much the quality of your life changes.

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on January 22, 2013:


Thanks for the comment. That is a great idea which I hadn't thought of. Probably because I've never had a smartphone. I've been meaning to update this list to add a mention of business cards. When I do I'll add your suggestion as well.

Kamal Mohta from Guangzhou on January 22, 2013:

Thanks for helpful tips for those Mandarin challenged individuals living in China. In my experience, more helpful is smart phone (IOS or android) with internet connection. One can download google translator and map to survive China on daily basis.

Taking picture of frequently visited places with address in Chinese superimposed (via any photo editor) and storing it on the phone for future use is another good idea.

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on October 25, 2012:

ithabise, thank you for your very kind comments. I'm a bit honored that someone thinks something I've written is worthy of HOTD. I really appreciate that.

Michael S from Danville, VA on October 25, 2012:

What a great article, Wesley! It caused me to remember my time in Japan. I learned so little before leaving (you're right about how busy pre-departure can be.) I had just finished grad school and the thesis, so my head was chock-full and I couldn't fit in any new learning! Your tips are great and so right-on. This is a worthy HOTD!

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on October 25, 2012:

Berojgaarnews, thanks for commenting.

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on October 25, 2012:

Paul, thanks for your votes and commenting. My first year in China I was teaching but I was also taking classes online with University of Phoenix. I had very little down time so I spent no time at all studying Chinese. It hasn't been until recently that I've started to study and learn a great deal. I've found that you really have to be proactive in learning.

The long-haired dictionary is funny. I've had a Chinese girlfriend for a little over a year. From a learning perspective I believe there is a down side to this. It is very easy to rely on my girlfriend and let her help me with things like talking to people at the bank, ordering food at a restaurant and booking train tickets and hotel/hostel rooms. It is practical because she can talk to people much more easily than I can. At the same time, I often feel like these are learning opertunities that I'm losing out on.

Lately I've been using Pimsluer course to study on my own. Then when I see her I often say something I've learned from the course to see how she responds. If she responds the way I think she should I feel like I've gotten something right. If she is confused I ask her questions to figure out why. Sometimes it's my pronouciation which is wrong and sometimes it is that the phrases they teach are outdated. But still I feel like I'm learning which is good. And I totally agree.... practice, practice, practice.

Fedrick Joseph from Shindikurbet, Karnataka on October 25, 2012:

Chinese is Tough and Seems Funny Language for Non-Chinese Community but It is Best Language too if you could understand.The Empire Language of East in the Globe

Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on October 25, 2012:

Wesley, This is a very useful article and it certainly would apply to any person living in a foreign country where he can't speak the local language. Many of the Americans who work for embassies and consulates overseas are quartered in little ghettos where it isn't necessary for them to speak the local dialect. All of their language needs are met by foreign nationals who can speak English to one degree or another. Your ideas for getting by without knowing the language are excellent. When I started learning Thai, people used to joke that I could really improve my Thai getting a long-haired dictionary. Well, I married a Thai and it has helped me improve my Thai. Without knowing the language well, you can't be shy and really have to be proactive in trying to communicate. You also have to practice, practice, and practice. Voted up as useful and sharing.

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on September 13, 2012:

Mr. Trollol, Hi and thanks for the kind words.

Yes, I'm living in China. It is a bit challenging not knowing Chinese but I'm learning (slowly) and it is often fun too. If you are looking to study Chinese I'd recommend Pimsluer which is what I'm using and also Chinesepod.com. Both are very basic and effective if you use them regularly.

You are correct about vertical chopsticks in a bowl of rice being an act of respect at a funeral. It is supposed to be taboo in other places but I've often thought of doing it just to see how people would react. I am what many Chinese people would call a "xiao wang ba dan" or "little turtle egg" which could be roughly translated into "bastard" or "troublemaker." There is also a holiday in which they burn fake money or more often just strips of paper as a way of sending money to relatives who have passed.

I've not really studied characters. I recognize maybe twelve. I've not heard that about the connection between cave paintings and Chinese characters but it makes a bit of sense. It is practical to study Characters but I'm a bit lazy. Pin yin is easier to learn and more helpful with learning Chinese in general as far as taking notes is concerned. But outside of these things, in my opinion pin yin is vertually useless. Learning characters is much more practical since the vast majority of writing is done using characters.

I don't know any ABCs personally but I've heard a few stories from friends. Don't be surprised when people here compliment you on how good your English is before they learn that you're an ABC.

Mr.Trollol on September 13, 2012:

Hahaha, thanks.

Firstly, great post for someone who isn't Chinese but lives(I think?) in China.

One more thing you should take notice of is to learn table manners e.g. don't stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. Someone there will probably bash you up for that, because that is what people do at a funeral.

Also, if you want to learn Chinese characters REALLY REALLY fast, look up the ancient hieroglyphs and pictures for a character... for example the word 'dog' actually looks like a dog, and the picture is still visible in modern Chinese.

Im not an expert. You, mate, are the best:D cos im going to china in a week and need some help. haha, but im an ABC




I will recommend this hub 2 my friends

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on June 30, 2012:

phdast7- often I just try to think of the easiest way to do something. Thanks for commenting.

livingabroad- Yeah, it can be really frustrating. What is really frustrating for me is trying to tell someone I'm not interested when they are trying to sell me something. Sometimes they understand and sometimes they don't and sometimes they keep asking anyway even though they understand... but yes it is a great experience. Thanks for commenting.

livingabroad from Wales, UK on June 29, 2012:

A very well written hub Wesley. I understand what you are saying as I am currently working in Thailand and have come across many the same thing as you. Patience is the key as you say!

However it can become tiring sometimes right!? It can become tiring sometimes right. But what a fantastic experience! Hows are the working conditions?

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on June 27, 2012:

Great essay Wesley. You offer practical reasonable ways to both get by without knowing mandarin and to improve one's grasp of the language.

However, reading the whole Hub was worth one tip alone...save the boxes! That is a fantastic idea. Especially when it comes to medications. Thanks. Sharing.

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on May 29, 2012:

Thanks for commenting. It was an idea born of necessity. Actually the first time I did it I was looking for a refill in a mosquito repellent devise.

Silva Hayes from Spicewood, Texas on May 29, 2012:

Good information; I especially like the tip about saving the empty box and taking it to the store! I would not have thought of that.

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on May 23, 2012:

Patriette, thanks for commenting. You make an interesting point. I hadn't previously thought of that. Chinese people seem to believe that it is extremely important to learn English or that their children should learn English. I don't think that there are many people in America who have that same thought process concerning Chinese. But any language you learn can be extremely beneficial in life.

Patriette from Las Vegas, NV on May 23, 2012:

Great article, Wesley. As an American living in the states, learning Mandarin might not be too far-fetched an idea, since the U.S. is economically so closely tied to China. Voting Useful and interesting.

Wesley Meacham (author) from Wuhan, China on May 23, 2012:

Rajan, Thank you. I'm glad that you enjoyed it and find it helpful.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on May 23, 2012:

Excellent stuff, Wesley. My daughter got married some months back and lives in China. I'm forwarding this hub link to her. She will find it very useful as she does not know Chinese.

Thanks for sharing. I need to start learning Chinese now since in 6 months or so I'll be visiting my daughter. Your other tips will also come in handy.

Voted up and all the way across.

Shared on FB.

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