How to Survive in China Without Knowing How to Speak Chinese


You are a Chinese Indonesian, aren’t you? Why can’t you speak Chinese? 

Well, when I was a kid, my mom used to forced me to have a Chinese lesson. I did actually. But I stopped without even mastering the language at the end. I used to hate learning to speak Chinese. I mean, it’s so hard to be pronounced, to be written, and to be read. Everything about it just seems so difficult to me… Who’s with me? Raise your hand!

Luckily – or unluckily, I supposed, depending on the perspective, I grew up in a Chinese family without even being able to speak Chinese fluently. I mean, I know only the basic words. Of course I know how to say “hi, how are you?” or “Thank you” or “I want that one please” or “Why are you so stupid?”. But I guess everybody also knows that, so it won’t help at all. It never mattered too much to me, not until I had a chance to actually live in a country where Mandarin is the language of the country.


What really surprised me is… most Chinese there can’t speak English. Even the receptionists in the hotel we were staying can’t understand me. I never thought it would be that bad! I mean, Beijing is a big city so I assumed most of them can speak English very well. Turned out I was totally wrong.

And you might also wanna know that most of the food menu in the restaurant is also written in Chinese, without the English translation (and some of them don’t even provide the food picture also!). Not to mention the street sign. So, the first day I came, I was like : “Fine. I’m gonna die.”

After a week of living there without a tour guide, I was finally able to adapt the culture a little bit. I mean, I began to enjoy living there. I was able to order my food & buy some stuffs. I can understand (a little bit) what others are saying. Way to go, Sharon!

So here’s the facts I found & the tips I’d like to share to you. I hope this will help anyone who’s been planning to visit China.

1. Most people here can not speak English. Even Thai people speak English better than Chinese do. So don’t be surprised or angry or… Okay, just don’t do anything stupid. So make sure you learned the basic Chinese words before you went here, especially Mandarin. There are a lot of amazing website out there which can teach you how to speak Chinese. At least, make the attempt to learn the basic words.

2. The toilets here are sooo dirty. You should really bring your own tissue and hand sanitizer/soap. 

3. It’s so hard to find a coffee shop here. Even the restaurant which sells food for breakfast I went didn’t sell coffee. It’ll be great if you bring your own coffee.

4. There will be no even-a-tiny-drop of chili sauce in the McDonald here (and in most of other restaurant). So it’ll be nice if you can bring your own chili sauce if you prefer some.

5. Most restaurants have the food menu written in Chinese Mandarin without the English translation. And the worse part is, many of the local restaurant don’t provide the food picture in the menu. So those who don’t understand Chinese will have no idea of what foods are available there. Bring your dictionary (the digital one is better). Or if you have a translator, it will be even better.

I myself use Pleco. It’s free & available for iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone. Pleco is suuuuch a great offline dictionary! I can translate the English words into Mandarin and Mandarin into English. And you know, you can even write the Chinese letter you found written somewhere (on the food menu, or on the street sign, or anywhere you can find!) & Pleco will find the closest word & immediately translate that word into English. It is that great.

6. People here eat a lot. I mean it. It’s like 3 times or 4 times more than Indonesian portion, you know. We once ordered the foods that the waitress recommended for 6 of us. Turned out, we can’t finish our foods because it’s just too much for us. So, check the food portion before ordering.

7. Don’t buy things with a big amount of money. And don’t even try to purchase things with your dollar. You better change it at the money changer first. You know, they might give you the fake money as the changes. It could be that bad.

8. A map here won’t help if you don’t now how to read Chinese word since it’s all written in Chinese. Maybe you should make friends with foreigners who speak Chinese so that they can help you out.

9. Don’t tip. I mean, you could but it’s not a common thing to do in China. Sure you can tip them and some of them will love it. But they don’t necessarily expect you to do so. So there are actually no hard feelings even if you don’t.

Sooo, are you really for a trip? 😀 Don’t be hesitate to ask me anything if you need some. I’ll be pleased to help you.


25 Komentar

  1. Lol, my adventures extend to mainly shanghai and if you see the Chinese Australian girl out the corner of your eye, gesturing madly, you’ll know it’s me! 😉

    My folks always warn (never to exchange money at an airport and to avoid the atm’s in the airport too. Mostly always it’s fake money. Get your $$$ from an ATM in a regular shopping centre or bank.

    They say the only times they ever got duped was at the airport…and they are Chinese and speak the language!

    1. Sharon Loh berkata:

      Hahahaha. I’ve never been to Shanghai anyway. People say it’s a great beautiful city. I’m soooo gonna re-visit China! Of course I’ll practice my speaking ability first.

      Wow, even at the airport?

      Hahaha yes exactly! I found the Chinese that can speak at the airport. But still it’s hard enough for me to understand her speaking. You know, the pronunciation is kinda weird :p

  2. erika berkata:

    Wow, my dad was Chinese Indonesian too! He moved to the U.S. when he was 8. How interesting! These are all great tips…I remember hearing the last one before I went to China in high school. THAT was embarrassing since I can’t really speak a lick of Mandarin!

    1. Sharon Loh berkata:

      Hi Erika. Wow, really? What a coincidence! Can you speak Bahasa Indonesia then? It’s much more easier than Mandarin. At least for me :p. Lol, that must be funny. I bet the people in China will give you ‘that look’. You know, like : “You must be chinese. Why don’t you speak ‘our’ language instead?’ .
      Hahaha, happened to me.

      1. erika berkata:

        Yes, definitely got that look. And unfortunately, my dad is the only one who speaks Indonesian…and I’m not even sure what kind. He also speaks Dutch, do you? It sounds like everyone is multilingual there!

      2. Sharon Loh berkata:

        Wow, your dad is awesome! No, I don’t speak Dutch. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know how it sounds like. So, you were born and raised in US? Anyway I love your blog about pancake!

  3. unknown berkata:


  4. yinyin berkata:

    wow, thanks so much for these tips- I plan to have a trip to the “4 zhou” of China next year ^ – ^ these info will be very useful.

    Haha , you have my both hands for this- Chinese is trully difficult ^ – ^ ,my mom and dad forced me to study Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese ) since I was a child,oh my “stormy” childhood 😛 I am a Chinese Vietnamese girl , but people (even those in my hometown ) usually think that I come from Japan :l .Anyway , love to know you (and this lovely blog ) so much ^ v ^

    1. Sharon Loh berkata:

      Hi Yin Yin! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by. Wow sounds interesting. Have a great trip next year! 🙂

      Yes, i know righttt? It’s like you’ve got to spell each word in the right tone. And aaargh, learning mandarin in indeed stressful.

      Haha so you looks like a Japanese, huh? 🙂 Hey I wish I could visit Vietnam! People say Ho Chi Minh is such a beautiful city. Where are you from in Vietnam? 🙂

      Aww.. thank you so much dear. Glad knowing that someone actually enjoy reading my blog ^^

      1. yinyin berkata:

        ^ – ^ Thanks so much Sharon!

        haha ,I find learning new languages is a very interesting job even though I am not very good at it =)) I used to being in a great war with “Chinese” , and then “English” , the newest battle that I have to fight was with “Japanese” =) oh my stormy “adult hood” !

        ^ v ^ my hometown is Ho Chi Minh city – or Sai GoN in another name. If you manage to visit my city someday, remember that you will always have me as a friend here ^ – ^

        1. Sharon Loh berkata:

          Hahaha now that stormy “adult hood” has been paid off. You must now be able to speak Vietnamese, English, Mandarin, and Japanese! 4 languages is awesome!

          Awwww you’re sweet. Thank you! If I got a chance to visit Ho Chi Minh, you should be my tour guide hahaha. And I’ll teach you Bahasa Indonesia so then you’ll be able to speak 5 languages 😛

  5. dsbarger berkata:

    Where are you living in China? I was in Guangzhou for the last year…a dark and polluted city lol. China’s a very exciting and interesting place, but it ultimately became the place I least want to learn Mandarin. I think it will be Taiwan from here on out. Then again, if I can find some Chinese in Malaysia (sorry!) or Indonesia 🙂 that would be the best!

    1. Oh and my name’s Dave, not dsbarger haha

      1. Sharon Loh berkata:

        Hahaha hi Dave, aka dsbarger. (what is dsbarger anyway?) Thanks for stopping by!
        I lived in Beijing and Xiamen last autumn. I like Xiamen better. Haha I’m never been to Guangzhou anyway. Yes! I’m soooo gonna visit Taiwain someday. And Vietnam. They said Taiwan has a lot of inviting street snacks.

  6. micky berkata:

    Hi Sharon,
    I got a job in Chengdu with an IT company but I don’t have any idea what China has to offer me.I applied to the job and i never imagined in my wild dream that I would get it.I already have a job in my country (India) and I am confused whether I should take the offer in China.I have lived in Denmark where all the labels are in Danish but there everyone knows English.i don”t know even if I travel to China for how long I will live there without understanding the language

  7. dps berkata:

    Reading your blog give me some bittersweet memories about learning chinese.. haha! I stayed in Taiwan for 2yrs for my master’s degree and experienced the same thing that you did about not be able to speak the language, luckily Taipei is not that bad and you should definitely go there !! I studied chinese in between my study and I gave up, only mastering the basic conv and what I need to survive! Btw I live in singapore now and to be clear the chinese here speaks different dialect and not as good as those in taiwan (the tone what I meant) .. it’s getting harder here .. i miss taiwan now

    1. Sharon Loh berkata:

      Hi Dian! Ni hao? :p

      Hahaha I’m dying to go to Taiwan! My friends who also happened to have her degree there recommend it for its street snack. She also mention about how different the dialect there with the one she usually speaks.

      She’s very fluent at speaking chinese but there in Taiwain, the locals can’t understand what she’s speaking. It’s funny isn’t it? 🙂

      1. dian saraswati berkata:

        LOL … and it also clarify how difficult to learn the language .. hahahaha …

  8. Starting with the very basics, this site is open to anyone with no previous knowledge of Chinese. 9 thoughts is good way to Speak Chinese without knowing china language.

  9. sebelum ke beijing wkt itu aku udh baca bahwa org2 di sana memang jrg yg bisa bhs inggris.. makanya itu kenapa aku pilih penginapan (wkt itu no 1 di tripadvisor) , hostel yg org2nya bisa bhs inggris bagus. dan ada travel tur nya juga, jadi kupikir bakal aman lah ;D.. bener sih, kita ga bnyk nemu kesulitan soal bahasa, dan kalopun mau jlan2 sendiri, kita udh minta ke staff hostel utk nulisin dalam bhs mandarin, “saya tidak bisa makan pork. hanya ayam dan beef” :D.. jadi deh kita tunjukin itu kertas tiap makan di restoran, supaya staff restonya bisa kasih tau mana yg bukan pork ;p

    1 aja yg aku ga suka ttg beijing, KFC mereka ancur bgt rasanya ;D.. aku paling suka nyobain kfc di semua negara yg aku datangin.. selama ini fav masih di HCMC, krn kita dikasih garpu dan pisau beneran, bukan plastik ;p hihihihi… nah yg di beijing ini, itu rasa ayamnya kenapa kyk bukan ayam -__-. sumpah ih, 2 gigitan aku lgs ga napsu..

    1. Sharon Loh berkata:

      Hahaha nice trick! Aku ga kepikiran minta ditulisin di kertas. Beberapa bulan lalu akhirnya aku les mandarin sebentar loh sebelum ke Beijing bulan lalu, lumayan jadi bisa denger dikit2 walau ngomong nya masih ancur wkwk.

      Wah aku ga cocbain KFC nyaaa. Hihi iyaaa bener! Di Manila juga dikasih garpu sendok stainless beneran gitu, hepi deh. Tapi ga ada sambel nya 😦 Aku masih suka yang di Indo hehe. Jadi penasaran yang di Beijing kayak apa, jgn2 ayam palsu lagi hahahhaha

  10. omnduut berkata:

    Untuk pertama kalinya aku “tersasar” di blog ini 🙂 dan, karena lagi memendam “hasrat” untuk bisa eksplor China daratan, jadilah postingan mengenai China yang paling menyita perhatian.

    Dulu, saat kuliah, mayoritas temanku keturunan Tionghoa. Dan, rata-rata nggak bisa Bahasa Mandarin. Jadi, disela perkuliahan, mereka ambil les Bahasa Mandarin. Agak ironis juga 🙂 soalnya orang tua mereka bisa berbahasa Mandarin.

    Terima kasih info tentang Pleco-nya. Akan aku coba 🙂 salam kenal dari Palembang, btw. 🙂

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