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How to Make Great First Impressions with Any Chinese Speaker

JULIE THA GYAW

When my students tell me, “I’m having a bad Chinese day today,” I know exactly what they mean. 


Some days Chinese effortlessly rolls off your tongue, and you feel like you're making great progress. Then the bad Chinese days come, and you feel like you can’t understand anything, much less SAY anything in Chinese.


Good Chinese days happen when you can anticipate what the other person is going to say; you're prepared to understand and respond correctly.


A bad Chinese day happens when the person you're talking to “throws a curveball,” or says something in a way you’re not familiar hearing. A single “curveball” question can leave you struggling to catch up for the rest of a conversation.


It’s especially important to be able to anticipate, understand, and respond to questions when you first meet someone. A Chinese person will normally ask a lot of questions that you learn early on in your Chinese studies—unless the questions are phrased in a way that you don’t understand. 


Here's an in-depth look at the 5 most common Chinese conversation topics:


  • How they will ask your name
  • What's your hometown?
  • How old are you?
  • Tell them about your family
  • What's your job?


Learn these and you've armed yourself for those first impression conversations. 



How they will ask your name - 姓名 (xìng míng) 


There are two standard ways you will hear a Chinese person ask for your name. And you should be able to answer these basic questions in your sleep. 


Basic questions:


你叫什么名字 (nǐ jiào shén me míng zi)?  - What’s your name?


您贵姓 (nín guì xìng)?  - What is your honorable surname? (Note: this is a more formal greeting)


But there’s another way to ask this question that might throw you off if you’re not ready for it.


You might also hear:


怎么称呼你 (zěn me chēng hu nǐ)?  - What should I call you? 


or


您怎么称呼 (nín zěn me chēng hu)?  - How should I address you? (This is slightly more formal)


The reason why people ask this question is to make sure they call you the name that you like best. It’s polite, not too formal, and it helps avoid any awkwardness figuring out what you should actually CALL someone, which is not always his or her name.


Key words to listen for:


称呼 (chēng hu)  - call; address 


Typically, even if you only catch the word “称呼 (chēng hu)”  then you can be pretty sure they’re asking for your name.


Reply with:


我叫 (wǒ jiào)     name   . - My name is    name   .


You can keep it simple and reply to this question the same way you’d reply to the basic “What’s your name?” question. Fill in the blank with whatever name you like to use. Titles like 王先生 (wáng xiān sheng)  - Mr. Wang or 刘老师 (liú lǎo shī)  - Teacher Liu, and English names are also acceptable.


Looking for other ways to answer the question? Check out Intermediate Lesson 1 - How should I address you? for more ideas.


Related lessons:

Beginner Conversational Unit 21, Lesson 2 - What's your name?


What's your hometown? - 家乡 (jiā xiāng) 


ask hometown in Chinese


The essential, “Where are you from?” question can get pretty specific in Chinese. Chinese people often like to ask about your hometown, which is usually the place where you grew up, the place where your parents grew up, or where your extended family are living.


Basic questions:


你是哪国人 (nǐ shì nǎ guó rén)?  - Where are you from? (referring to your home country)


You might also hear:


你的老家在哪里 (nǐ de lǎo jiā zài nǎ lǐ)?  - Where is your hometown?


你的家乡在哪儿 (nǐ de jiā xiāng zài nǎr)?  - Where is your hometown?


Key words to listen for:


老家 (lǎo jiā)  - hometown (lit. "old home")


家乡 (jiā xiāng)  - hometown


In China, asking about your hometown is relevant because people often speak the local dialect and most likely prefer the kind of food that’s typical of their hometown. It is becoming more and more difficult to answer this question, though, as people move around more often.


Reply with:


我老家 (wǒ lǎo jiā)  / 家乡在 (jiā xiāng zài)     place   . - My hometown is    place   .


If you find it difficult to identify a single place that would be considered your real “hometown,” then just pick a place that you might call “home” and go with that. 


Or, it’s also common to answer with something like this:


我爸爸是    place   人 (wǒ bà ba shì    place   rén).  我妈妈是    place   人 (wǒ mā ma shì    place   rén).  - My dad is from    place   and my mom is from    place  


This reply is the equivalent of saying, “It’s complicated, but the short answer is that I have family in this place and that place.”


It’s also worth mentioning here that there’s a related question that you might be asked in a conversation about the place that you call home. If you’ve been living in a particular place for many years, listen for the word 定居 (dìng jū).  That means “establish residence” or “settle down.” 


The full question you might hear is:


你在   place   定居了吗 (nǐ zài    place    dìng jū le ma)?  - Have you made your home in    place   ?


To 定居 (dìng jū)  typically means to set up your permanent residence somewhere. Usually you’ll hear this used when someone is talking about a place he or she calls “home” that’s away from their original 老家 (lǎo jiā) - hometown. 


Related lessons:

Beginner Conversational Unit 4, Lesson 2 - Nationality

Chinese Learning Tips Lesson 30 - Where are you from?


"How old are you?" and other ways to ask your age - 年龄 (nián líng) 


Part of getting to know someone is figuring out how old they are. I've joked with my Chinese friends about how hard it is for me, even after more than a decade of living among Chinese people, to guess how old a Chinese person is. 


For some reason I’m much more accurate when guessing how old a Caucasian person is. The opposite is often true for Chinese people as well. When I’ve had Chinese people guess my age, I’ve received wildly inaccurate guesses. 


If someone is curious about your age, I’ve found that people from older generations are more likely to come right out and directly ask. Most likely someone who is older will just want to compare your age to her child’s age.


Basic questions:


你多大(了) (nǐ duō dà (le))?  - How old are you?


You might also hear:


你今年多大 (nǐ jīn nián duō dà)?  - How old are you (this year)?


你是哪年出生的 (nǐ shì nǎ nián chū shēng de)?  - Which year were you born?


你属什么 (nǐ shǔ shén me)?  - What’s your Chinese zodiac sign?


Traditionally, Chinese babies are considered one year old when they are born, and 365 days later turn either two or three, depending on the lunar calendar. It’s a little confusing and it means that sometimes a person is counted as a year or even two years older in China than they would be elsewhere. 


So for accuracy, often people will ask you what year you were born in, rather than asking your age. Sometimes they'll ask you which zodiac animal year you were born in. That will indicate the year of your birth as well as key insights into your personality (if they’re into that kind of thing). 


Key words to listen for:


哪年出生 (nǎ nián chū shēng)  - "born in which year”


属 (shǔ)  - “belong to” (as in which year/sign of the zodiac were you born under)


Reply with:


我今年  age  岁 (wǒ jīn nián   age   suì).  - I’m   age   this year.


我是   year   年出生的 (wǒ shì   year   nián chū shēng de).  - I was born in   year  .


我属   zodiac animal   (wǒ shǔ   zodiac animal  ).  - I was born in the year of the   zodiac animal  .


猜猜吧 (cāi cai ba)!  - Take a guess!


Find out your Chinese zodiac animal here.


Don’t be thrown off by the word 今年 (jīn nián)  - this year. People say "this year" whenever asking or stating an age. I don’t know why (it’s not like you’d be saying how old you were last year). That’s just how it’s done.


Related lessons:

Beginner Conversational Unit 2, Lesson 1 - Numbers 0-10

Beginner Conversational Unit 2, Lesson 3 - Numbers 11-99

Beginner Conversational Unit 27, Lesson 3 - Day and year (Part 1)

Beginner Conversational Unit 37, Lesson 1 - How old are you?


Tell them about your family - 家人 (jiā rén) 


Family is a great topic for breaking the ice and making you feel closer to someone you’ve just met. You’re likely to be asked about your family when getting to know someone, but be ready for questions that are worded differently from the standard questions you already know.


Basic questions:


你有兄弟姐妹吗 (nǐ yǒu xiōng dì jǐe mèi ma)?  - Do you have any siblings?


你结婚了吗 (nǐ jié hūn le ma)?  - Are you married?


You might also hear:


你们家几个孩子 (nǐ men jiā jǐ ge hái zi)?  - How many kids are in your family? (Note: this question is usually asking about your siblings, not your own children)


你是老几 (nǐ shì lǎo jǐ)?  - Are you the oldest/youngest/middle child? (Literally: "Where do you rank among the kids in your family?")


你成家了吗 (nǐ chéng jiā le ma)?  - Are you married? (Note: this is usually asked of guys in their 20s, but people have asked me before so it’s not exclusively for men)


Key words to listen for:


老几 (lǎo jǐ)  - literally “old how many" (See explanation below)


成家 (chéng jiā)  - "establish a family” (i.e. get married)


Reply with:


我们家有三个孩子 (wǒ men jiā yǒu sān ge hái zi)  - There are three kids in our family.


我是老大 (wǒ shì lǎo dà)  / 老二 (lǎo èr)  /老三 (lǎo sān).  - I’m the oldest/second oldest/third oldest.


The oldest child, or traditionally the oldest son, is called 老大 (lǎo dà)  - literally "old big." The subsequent kids use numbers in place of 大 (dà)  so the second born is 老二 (lǎo èr)  and the third is 老三 (lǎo sān).   


However, I should mention that 老二 (lǎo èr) has another somewhat vulgar slang meaning, so second borns like myself might be more likely to say:


  • 我是第二个孩子 (wǒ shì dì èr ge hái zi)  - I'm the second child.
  • 我有一个姐姐和一个弟弟 (wǒ yǒu yí ge jǐe jie hé yí ge dì di)  - I have an older sister and a younger brother.


Related lessons:

Beginner Conversational Unit 19, Lesson 1 - Do you have any siblings?

Beginner Conversational Unit 33, Lesson 2 - Are you married?

Intermediate Conversational Unit 10, Lesson 1 - Are you married?


What's your job? - 职业 (zhí yè) 


Last but not least, you’ll normally discuss occupations with someone when you first meet. There are a few different ways that you’ll hear this question worded, and of course there are plenty of different ways that this question can be answered.


Basic questions:


你(是)做什么工作(的) (nǐ (shì) zuò shén me gōng zuò (de))?  - What do you do?


You might also hear:


你是干什么的 (nǐ shì gàn shén me de)?  - What do you do? (Note: this is a very informal way of saying it)


你做什么行业 (nǐ zuò shén me háng yè)?  - What line of work/industry are you in?


你做什么职业 (nǐ zuò shén me zhí yè)?  - What’s your profession?

Key words to listen for:


干 (gàn)  - "to do" (Remember: this is very informal)


行业 (háng yè)  - industry


职业 (zhí yè)  - profession; occupation


Reply with:


我是   profession   (wǒ shì  profession ).  - I’m a   profession .


我在公司上班 (wǒ zài gōng sī shàng bān).  - I work in a company.


我做生意 (wǒ zuò shēng yì).  - I do business.


我搞   industry   (wǒ gǎo  industry ).  - I’m in   industry . (Note: 搞 (gǎo) is another way to say “do” or “work.”)


Example industry names:


教育 (jiào yù)  - education 


金融 (jīn róng)  - finance


建筑 (jiàn zhù)  - construction


Chinese people often talk about their jobs in vague terms. Rather than directly stating what their job is, people may say: “I work in a company/office” or “I do business.” It wasn’t too long ago that everyone in China who wasn’t working on a farm worked at a “job unit” that was assigned to them by the government. 


So by saying that you work in a company or do business specifies that you’re not working at a government or civil job. That qualifies as enough information.


Related lessons:

Beginner Conversational Unit 22, Lesson 2 -What's your job?

Intermediate Conversational Unit 36 - What do you do?


Chatting in Chinese with new people can sometimes be a little stressful, but anticipating the types of questions Chinese people will ask can put everyone at ease and make the rest of the conversation go well. 


If you're able to recognize keywords from these standard "meet and greet" questions no matter how they are phrased, you'll be ready to answer them! Then you can walk away from the conversation feeling like you’re having a “good Chinese day". :)



Have you heard these questions asked in any other ways? What other conversation topics do you want to learn more about? Share with us in the comments below!


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JULIE THA GYAW is one of the course designers and script writers for Yoyo Chinese. She has lived in China for more than a decade teaching Mandarin, and holds a Master's degree in Chinese from Middlebury College. Her biggest and most challenging project these days is learning how to teach her one-year-old son both English and Chinese.

Wed, 20 Jan 2016 22:00:00 GMT

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