This post is by Jennifer Rives, a CIEE TEFL and Teach in China Alumni and a current participant of our Teach in Thailand program.
In preparation for teaching in China, you've probably found yourself digging through poorly written notes from your high school Mandarin class, desperately hoping to brush up on your Chinese. While your formal language training may help, it likely won't prepare you for the colloquial Chinese that you'll need to make friends. As a CIEE Teach in China alumni, I can help.
If you're reading this, you've probably already read Part I of this series and are already a pro at the six useful Chinese compliments I taught you. Great job! If not, I recommend you check out Part I before moving on.
There may only be four phrases in this list, but speaking from personal experience, they will to make you quite popular with many young people in China. Whether you choose to use these colloquial phrases with your Chinese friends, coworkers, or your students, you are guaranteed to get a very cheerful, enthusiastic response.
1. Handsome boy or girl
These phrases are two ways of addressing people that will likely get you a lot of laughs and excited responses from Chinese young people. If you don’t believe me, just ask my sister! I taught her these two words a long time ago and she’s been using them ever since to entertain her Chinese friends at her university.
You can use these terms to refer to a young man or woman when you don’t know their name but want to get their attention. These terms are very commonly used in China, so if you use them, you will surprise people by how ‘native’ your Chinese sounds. Keep in mind, to only use these terms when addressing young men and women, not adults or elderly people. China is a hierarchical society, so older people have an entirely different set of addresses. However, for anyone who appears to be in their late 20’s/early 30’s or younger, these phrases are fair game.
In Chinese restaurants, for example, if you want to call the server over to your table, you can simply motion them over with your hands and say “Shuài gē” if the server is a boy/young man, or “Měi nǚ” if the server is a girl/young woman. When someone you don’t know wants to get your attention or direct information at you, they will probably address you as “Shuài gē” or “Měi nǚ” if they think you are in your early 30’s or younger.
You can also turn this way of addressing people into a compliment by adding 你是 / nǐ shì (you are) at the beginning of the sentence. So the compliment form of this term of address is, Nǐ shì shuài gē / Nǐ shì měi nǚ. This phrase isn't typically found in Chinese textbooks and foreigners don't usually know it, so locals will love hearing you say it.
2. Do you want to hang out?
Of course, if you want to make good friends, you’ll need to actually hang out with them. Rather than wait for an invitation, you can do take initiative by asking this question.
In Chinese to English dictionaries, the word 玩儿 / wán(r) is often translated as ‘play’ in English. That’s because the verb wán(r) is also used to mean play, as in "play a game." In this sentence, though, the verb means ‘hang out’ or ‘go out.’ However, since Chinese people are so used to seeing this verb translated as ‘play,’ when they want to ask you to hang out with them in English, they will often ask, “Do you want to play with me?”
Needless to say, this sounds very awkward to a native English speaker. Remember, though, if a Chinese person asks you to ‘play’ with them in English, it’s because they’re translating this phrase from Chinese to English in their head, not because they are socially awkward.
3. Let's split the bill.
To this day, I still don’t know where “AA” came from or why Chinese people use it, but this really is the way to tell your friends that you want to split the check. This phrase is essential to know because until they feel very close to you, your Chinese friends will pay, try to pay, or find a sneaky way to pay for the meals you share together. If it’s your first or second time eating together, you can let them treat you, but you should still offer to pay the bill anyway.
If it’s your third, fourth, or fifth time eating together, though, you should start splitting the bill. To initiate this change, use the phrase “AA ba.” Your Chinese friends will probably refuse you at first and still try to pay for you, but just keep saying that you want to share the bill. Eventually, they will break down and let you split the check.
Your friends won’t tell you outright, but they’ll be happy that you insisted because it means that from that moment onward, they’ll be less formal and more relaxed with you. It also means that they’ll save money, so they’ll be able to do more fun things with you.
Last, but-not-least, is this relatively new text message/slang phrase, which is extremely popular with young Chinese people. Basically, just text a bunch of 6’s or say the number 6 (liù) a bunch of times after someone does something funny/cool/exciting/interesting/etc.The phrase originated as text language, so make sure that when you message your friends, you use this in your chats. Like "LOL," now young people use the phrase in daily life as well as text. Give it a try.
The phrase originated as text language, so make sure that when you message your friends, you use this in your chats. Like "LOL," now young people use the phrase in daily life as well as text. Give it a try. The first time a Chinese young person hears or sees you do this, he/she will burst into laughter and be totally excited because this is just about as ‘native’ as you can get when speaking Mandarin.