Surviving in China with a Semester of Chinese

David Ferguson, Project Pengyou summer intern, writes about his experiences in Beijing as a beginner Mandarin student. 


Unlike the Chinese Room thought experiment, you won’t have access to English rules about how to use Chinese and unlimited time. Luckily, you do have consciousness.

When I came to China, I was coming with one semester of a college-level Chinese course. Not much, right? But here’s the kicker: I wasn’t even a great student.  I was downright mediocre. To make matters worse, I had a semester-long gap in my Chinese instruction before coming to China, so I was rightly worried about how I would navigate China.

Luckily, there isn’t a huge volume of linguistic knowledge that you need in order to survive day to day life Beijing. I could use public transit, taxis, and order at restaurants and I have almost no ability to understand Chinese. However, although it’s true you can survive without speaking much Chinese, a little bit of core knowledge has gone a long way to greatly improve my day-to-day interactions with people.

Here’s how to scrape by in Beijing when you’ve just started learning Chinese.

Step 1: Learn Core Vocabulary

I knew before I came to Beijing that my limited Chinese knowledge was already decaying from a semester of neglect, so I reviewed my Chinese textbook and downloaded Pleco[i]. In order to figure out what vocabulary to drill, I read about other people’s experiences online[ii]. These are the words that have gotten me the most mileage in China:
These two know how it’s done


The most frequent and crucial use of language will be paying for things. Some cashiers will type the number into a calculator as a safeguard so you can see the number in Arabic numerals. This won’t reliably happen, so it’s important to grasp the basics of counting and numbers. Otherwise, you may find yourself standing at the cash register flustered while everyone behind you gets frustrated. Thankfully, counting and numbers in Chinese is really easy compared to a lot of languages. There are no twelves, teens, twenties, or genders to worry about. There are just digits and the word for the digit place (just units of ten and nothing kooky until you get to numbers large enough to need commas).


One of my biggest challenges was understanding money. I thought at first that cashiers were referring to some denomination of renminbi that I wasn’t familiar with. After asking some Chinese-speaking friends, I learned thatthat kuai to yuan is the same as bucks to dollars or quid to pounds. An interesting caveat: Renminbi is the currency, while yuan is the denomination. A dollar has the same name and denomination, so this distinction seemed strange to me at first. But now I think of it like gold and ounces. You say 3 ounces of gold, not 3 gold. Further denominations come in jiao, which is 1/10th of a Yuan. One and five jiao are issued in both coins and bills, interestingly enough. Less importantly, a fen is a denomination equal to 1/100th of a yuan, but it is such a small unit that it isn’t a useful unit of value and is therefore not in circulation.


Beijing is not the easiest to navigate sometimes. Make sure you have a good map or GPS app on your phone (with a Chinese cell phone plan!)

I also wanted to know how to get around without just relying on my memory of landmarks. That meant adding direction words to my vocabulary.  North, South, East, West. Bei 北,  Nan 南, Dong 东, and Xi 西. If I wanted to ask where I was at, Wo zai nar? 我在哪儿? An important thing I felt I needed to have in my first day of being in Beijing was a map. I looked up “map” in Pleco and learned Ditu 地图. I spent a couple hours walking around trying to figure out who would sell a map of the city — a bookstore?… a convenience store? I will save you that adventure by telling you that each and every newsstand (the ones located on most street corners of major thoroughfares) will have a nice, glossy map of Beijing for less than ten yuan. Grab one of these before your first sojourn around Beijing.

I also I made sure that I was familiar with were demonstrative words:  Zhege 这个 and Nage 那个, this and that. Pair these with vigorous gesturing and you’re on your way to buying a great variety of street food and merchandise at various stalls around Beijing.

Step 2: Day to Day Life

Since you’re freshly out of your comfort zone, it’s important to be open to new things that you might not be in other circumstances. At most restaurants, I had no idea what the food consisted of, but I could make a guess, point to something and ask for it. Several times, doing that pushed the boundaries of food that I had originally considered to be edible. When pushing myself to “go for it”, I consider that many Chinese people know and love those foods, so there’s very little chance that it isn’t tasty in at least some respect. For example, I accidentally tried curdled duck blood at a restaurant. It was strange and not what I expected (less liver-like than I had been anticipating and more tofu-like). But it was also pretty okay. I can understand how people could seek it out. As far as the mechanics of ordering food goes, a powerful technique is to just say Yiyang 一样 (same) after someone else asks for food. That way you don’t have to spend so much time miming what it is that you want. This works because if at least one other person is eating it, and that person looks fairly reasonable, that means whatever they’re eating should be fine.

**If you have allergies or dietary restrictions, make sure to disregard this and instead find resources online about how to manage your diet in China. Here are some places to get started.

Step 3: Managing expectations and expanding horizons

A little extreme, but expectations management goes a long way
Sometimes things will feel out of control, but it’s important to keep things in context

As a newly illiterate and linguistically incompetent person, most things will suddenly become much harder. I suddenly felt like a kindergartener in my inability to perform basic tasks. I had no clue how to use my washing machine because all of the buttons were labeled in Chinese. I didn’t know where to go to find basic necessities. The world felt like I was at a mall and I had lost my parent. It’s really easy to let that kind of circumstance get the better of you, but it’s important to take a breath and slow down. Often, I don’t have any clue what is going on around me, but I just go with it. Tolerating uncertainty has been crucial to living in Beijing, and setting expectations before coming helped even more.

I’ve been very fortunate to work in an English speaking office with several people who can help me interact in Beijing. If you need help while abroad, reach out to Pengyous: access college alumni networks, go to expat areas and meet people.


Patience, Gratitude, and Good Humor


Result: The prognosis is pretty good.

Although it’s manageable to live here without language skills, I really wish I had known more Chinese before coming. It’s a little disappointing to realize how large a part of China I’m missing out on because I can only effectively travel so far from an English-speaking bubble of people and places. However, that’s the motivation for mastering more of the language before my next time in China!

Aside from the skills above, the biggest resource you can draw upon when living in China (or anywhere) with little ability to communicate with people around you is patience, gratitude, and good humor. People really want to help. The best thing you can do is meet them halfway and try to convey that their efforts are not taken for granted.

Finally, if you truly want to engage with Chinese society, there’s no substitute for learning the language.  You just have to do it. For other helpful resources about surviving a first trip to China, check out fellow Pengyou Sohyeong Lee’s post: The China Starter Kit.

Happy exploring in China!



[i] This is a mobile app that is far-and-away the best English-Chinese dictionary available today. It has several really useful input methods, unrivaled thoroughness, and a great interface. This is not a native advertisement, Pleco is just really that good. Available in itunes or googleplay for free, with in-app purchases for some extra features.

[ii] The process comes full circle.