Surviving in China Without Speaking Chinese

Some expats come to China to learn the culture and language. They take Mandarin courses in school, learn about China’s extensive history, and come ready to be immersed in a Chinese environment. And then there are other expats who think that the Chinese culture is intriguing, and take off on a plane to the land of the unknown, no preparation needed, so they think.

From my firsthand observation, it is, in fact, possible to survive  Beijing without speaking a word of Mandarin. My roommate is the perfect example. She has been here ten months and barely speaks any Chinese. Yet she is able to get around, take taxis to different places around Beijing, order food, and get delivery from the nearby supermarket. Is it because China’s education has improved exponentially, so that suddenly every Chinese citizen knows how to speak fluent English? Or is it because my roommate has a tiny Chinese leprechaun living in her ear, translating everything for her everywhere she goes? The answer, as you may be surprised to find out, is none of the above. The reason why my English-speaking only roommate can survive in the Chinese world is the reason why so many of us get ahead in jobs we’re significantly unqualified for: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Tip #1: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And who you know is preferably a Chinese speaker.

I’ve found that a lot of meals with expats are spent in bars, lounges, cafes, pizza parlors, etc. You get the picture. Places that cater to English-speaking customers. Which means that at least one person in that restaurant will be able to speak decent, if not comprehensible, English. That solves the food problem. What if you want a midnight snack but don’t walk to walk to the nearby supermarket (which delivers for free)? For this situation, and others, I would suggest living with someone who speaks Chinese, ideally a local. Hopefully this person is laid back and doesn’t mind calling for you every once in a while.

Tip #2: For local food, picture menus are your best friend.

While hanging out with some American friends yesterday, one friend mentioned that when she first arrived in Beijing, she wouldn’t eat at a local Chinese restaurant unless it had pictures to accompany its menu. I totally understand. Even if the menu has English, but no pictures, who knows what you’re getting when you order the “Chicken Slaps the Random Flower Sop.” If you’re tired of eating all Western food in a country with so many varieties of Chinese food, eating like a local is definitely possible without speaking like a local.  I would suggest learning basic Chinese (like, a Chinese kid starting to talk basic). 这个“zhe ge” means “This one.” So all you have to do is point at the dishes you want and say “zhe ge.” Over time, you’ll discover which dishes are your favorites, and if you learn how to say a few dishes in Chinese, you’ll always have something to fall back on whether or not the menu has pictures.

Tip #3: Save text messages of important locations in Chinese.

From what I’ve seen of the expat life, routine can tend to look something like this: work, Sanlitun, home, repeat (during weekdays), Wudaokou, home, Sanlitun, home, repeat (weekends). Not to say that it’s every expat’s routine. But places like Sanlitun and Wudaokou are definitely well-frequented by foreigners. So why not get your Chinese-literate friend to text 三里屯 “san li tun” and 五道口 “wu dao kou,” or other places you go quite often, in Chinese? Then, all you have to do is show it to the taxi driver! No language exchange needed. Another option is if you’re going to a specific restaurant, call the restaurant when you’re in the taxi and have them speak directly to the driver.

While I don’t condone finding a way to survive in China without learning any of the language at all, these are just a few tips for those who find themselves overwhelmed in a foreign country.

What are some ways you’ve survived in China without speaking Chinese? Do you have any language learning tips to share with new expats?

10 thoughts on “Surviving in China Without Speaking Chinese

  1. i have got a job in Chengdu and I need to join in 1 month.I don’t have any idea what China has to offer.Shall i take up the job or stay in my country with my current job

    • As much as I’d love to give in to my power-hungry tendencies, I can’t make that decision for you :P Feel free to email me via my Contact page with more information on your situation (what kind of job it is, what kind of job you’d be leaving, your hesitations about coming to China, etc.) and I’ll give you as much advice as I can!

  2. I have an offer right now from a company in China that has me seriously considering going. I’d work in the office one day a week, and spend 10 hours a week working online from home writing and blogging about my experience there. The other days of the week are spent working in a kindergarten classroom teaching English in the afternoons. I’d be paid 3000 yuan a month. I’d have a room and food provided for me. Did I mention they want to pay for my flight too?

    My problem is, as a Canadian, I speak no mandarin. Ok well I know hello and goodbye, that’s all. After having read this post, I am quite sure now that I can survive there. The company has English speaking Chinese individuals that would certainly be able to help me. Thoughts?

    • My initial thought is that you’d be way underpaid. Even though you wouldn’t be teaching full-time, I have friends who teach kindergarten full-time who earn around 11,000RMB per month (not including housing or food, but it’s easy to find affordable housing if you have roommates). My advice would be to check around some more. If you want to teach, there are plenty of opportunities that offer higher salaries. Even teaching part time, if you want to blog in your free time, you can earn more than 3000 per month. In my opinion, it’s a bit on the low side, lower than what some locals are earning here. What’s the name of the company? You can try checking out for teaching ops and other jobs. Be careful though, some are scams! Another site I use for job hunting is Let me know if you need any more help!

    • Wow that means a lot =) Thanks for letting me know. If you have any further questions once you get here (and trust me, you will), just ask and I’ll do my best to answer!

  3. I should follow up and say if you’re of Chinese descent (like myself and yourself) it will be a lot harder to get away with not speaking Mandarin! So I’ve done my time studying.

  4. Don’t live in China and make no attempt to learn Mandarin. That’s just wrong. Simple as that. I’d say the same to anybody moving to live in a country where the spoken language is not their mother tongue.

  5. I have 2 iPhone apps that show addresses in Chinese so that really solves the taxi issue, that and the GPS. I have been here a year and a half with no Chinese and its not a terrible handicap for living. But when it comes to trying to achieve something in the society its impossible to maximize your potential without the advantage of knowing the language.

    • @Tin Turtle: I completely agree with your last statement! Although I can speak and understand, I’m trying to improve my reading and writing. Not an easy task, but I guess if I’m going to learn Chinese anywhere, might as well be China, right? =)

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