The Lazy Bastard Guide to Mandarin

Freelancer’s Delight: Top 10 Questions You’ll Be Asked in China, and How to Respond in Mandarin

Freelance writing is by far the most variable, infuriating, and futile work I’ve done in my life…so far. Have you seen my resume of dead-end jobs? It’s pretty impressive.

Barback, barista, bartender, busboy, carpenter’s apprentice, delivery driver, doorman, dishwasher, entertainer, ESL teacher, file clerk, food runner, garde manger, general construction laborer, general manager of small Italian bistro, grocery clerk, guitar teacher, fry cook, hardware salesman, house-sitter, janitor, landscaper, landscape designer, maintenance man, office temp, manager of a coffee shop, parking lot attendant, personal assistant, phone clerk (Chicago Board of Trade), prep cook, publisher’s intern, retail clerk, runner (Commodities Trading Floor, CBOT), quasi-sommelier, sound engineer, substitute high school English teacher, telemarketer/recruiter, tour guide, valet, waiter, and last but not least, window washer.


I’m forgetting a couple of truly hellish gigs, but that window-washing job was the worst: Winter in suburban Chicago. Exposed to the elements all day everyday, frequently 20-50 feet off the ground in windy conditions, perpetually wet, wearing a tool belt of specialized squeegees, and the boss is a total dick who doesn’t care what happens, those fucking windows are gonna be washed.

Even though I desperately needed that approximately $12 an hour gig, I finally quit after two months of torture. Today, there are times when I would gladly trade this freelance writing nonsense for a squeegee and a bucket, strap on the safety harness and eagerly mount the scaffold, thrilled to be washing the windows of a four-story medical clinic in Lemont, Illinois, on the most raw, abusive December day in recorded history.

So why do it? To be honest, the only reason I’m still in the freelance writing game is for the sport: the occasional but massive rush of satisfaction when a payment for services rendered finally comes down the pipe. And I like writing; it’s nice to get paid doing what you like.

However, because I’m not interested in content farming, listicles, product descriptions, trending subjects and categories, mobile tech, K-pop, or SEO bullshit, I’m basically ankle-deep in a kiddie pool of potential clients. Overall, outlier writing gigs for guys like me are few and far between, and the competition is infinite.

Typical job listing board

Editing and writing are two separate aspects of the same discipline, and I’m good at both – I’ll edit the shit out of the average screenplay – but creative writing is what I think I do best.

As a writer-for-hire, I’m accommodating only up to a certain point, i.e. admittedly not the easiest and most flexible guy to work with. And that’s cost me more gigs than I can count. But the one thing I have never compromised is my writing style. This is how I write and if it appeals to the client, we can do business. If it doesn’t, we can’t. No hard feelings.

And even though I consciously maintain a strict policy to never write anything for free, the fact is I write a lot of shit for free.

Thus, part of the freelance game is writing stuff in lieu of an interview – a sort of test. The client says, “Hey, write me something and let’s see how it goes.” And so, I spend anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours working on the article or whatever, and send it off.

Before I click SEND, I remind myself that I’ll never hear from one out of every three potential clients. Another third will write back to say no thanks. And the final third will write back enthusiastically, “That’s great! Can you do ten of those a day for three dollars each?”

I could, but I’m not going to.

Every so often there’s a stitch in the fabric of the universe and you come across a great gig where the client is legitimate; meaning, they pay; and you like the work – or at least, don’t mind the work. Even better if it’s an on-going project.

Freelance writers have to be sharks in that we can never stop looking for gigs; you’ve always got to be swimming, metaphorically. Even though I have three on-going gigs with work on the table, plus my regular job, I’m always on the prowl for new shit. So the other day I came across a job listing for the rare gig that seemed to be right up my alley: Blog writer to share their experience in China.

Oh, hello. Did you mention “experience in China”?

After going through the application process, I was contacted by a rep for the company, who complemented some of my previous work (from The Lazy Bastard Guide to Mandarin), and offered me an interview-by-example.

After accepting, I spent the next 10 hours crafting a piece on the topic of their choice (a topic I had suggested during the application process). When the article was finished, I sent it off to the rep and for the first time in a very long while, I thought to myself, “I think they’re going to dig that.”

Silly freelance writer…

The next morning I received an email from the rep saying thanks and we’ll look it over and get back to you soon. A few hours later, I received a BCC email informing “us” that due to personnel issues at the company, they have suspended the hiring process until further notice.

Normally, I would have simply chalked it up as par for the course. Oh well. At least I enjoyed writing the piece.

And then I thought, well, why not just publish it myself? Isn’t that what I’ve been doing for the last however many years?

At the same time, writing the article revived my interest in the second edition of The Lazy Bastard Guide to Mandarin, which has been sitting in cold storage for over a year.

So here is what might have been a paid blog post for a potential client.

A couple of things to note: First, the assignment required Simplified Chinese characters, while I’ve generally used the Traditional characters – this is the main difference between Mandarin in China and Taiwan. Second, because I used a series of translation devices, some of the characters may appear kind of funky – bolded out n’ shit – in different browsers. Sorry about that. Finally, the potential client was a website that caters to people currently learning Mandarin, from beginners to high-intermediate students. Were this genuinely a Lazy Bastard piece, I’m sure some things would be different. Wink, nudge.

10 Common Questions You’ll Probably Be Asked in China – and How To Respond in Mandarin

A Theory of People

Inspired by eight-plus years of living and working in Taiwan and China, my Theory of People formulates that there are only three main types of human beings in the world: The Curious, The Indifferent, and The Afraid.

  • The Curious are always asking questions. They want to know all the basics of a story: Who, how, what, where, when, and why? They’re far from innocent; but as a rule, decent people with a genuine sense of wonder.
  • The Indifferent couldn’t care less who you are or what you’re doing in their part of town as long as you don’t cause trouble. Mind your own business: 管好你自己的事 (guǎn hǎo nǐ zì jǐ de shì), or 少管闲事 (shǎo guǎn xián shì). Sure, they notice you’re not from around here, but whatever. The Indifferent have better things to do.
  • The Afraid are suspicious, resentful, self–destructive, and often times hostile toward anything or anyone who doesn’t fit into their personal game of Global Jenga, i.e. 外国人 (wài guó rén) – Foreigners. The Afraid fear change and progress, but you can’t blame them; you don’t know their lives. And vice versa.

Sometimes when you have more than two of anything that multiplies, they’re going to intermix: What is the color orange but a combination of red and yellow? What is a mule but half–horse half–donkey?

Extra–extra generally speaking, you’re going to encounter all three types of people in China, plus the hybrids; for instance, Curiorents and Infraids.

  • Curiorents are those guys who come up to you at a party and say, “Hey, whatcha drinking? Smirnoff Ice? Coooolll….” And that’s basically the end of the conversation. Their curiosity has been satisfied and you are dismissed, 老外 (lǎo wài).
  • Infraids accidentally bump into you at the same party, causing you to drop the bottle, and the first words out of their mouths are: “What was that, Smirnoff Ice? Yeah, I thought so… foreign scum.”

The Curious Way

The Chinese are curious for one obvious and simple reason: Outside of the major cities, the majority of Chinese don’t see a lot of people like you and me on a daily basis, let alone an uncensored basis, except in Hollywood films and on TV; the latter being far more evil and misleading than the former, but herein is the point. The media is not reality.

So when a real–live westerner bearing a teeny–tiny slight resemblance to Moby on the worst day of his life rolls through a remote tourist village in Fujian Province, a shitload of people are going to stop and take notice, and they might want to take a picture with you – get used to it. That’s human nature and the backbone of The Curious Way.

Above all, both The Curious and The Indifferent mean absolutely no harm.

Making some new friends at 武夷山 (wǔ yí shān), 2008

Essential Fact(s) and Impressions Before We Proceed

According to the Sixth National Population Census of the People’s Republic of China (2010), there are approximately 600,000 foreigners in China on a semi–permanent basis, making up 0.04% of the population. That means, and I’m sorry for the math, a ratio of approximately 1/23,000.

For every Hong Kong Disneyland full of Cantonese pop stars, there’s one of you.

To be frank, I was prepared to draw limited yet entertaining but unnecessary attention everywhere I went in China based on my appearance – I own a mirror. But I may have misinterpreted the overall intention of the general public. And I hadn’t yet formulated my Theory of People.

At the time of my first visit it seemed like people judged me [with a sly grin], “Well, well, well, what do we have here?” And to a certain extent, I was right.

Except most people were actually thinking: “Shit! A foreigner! [Pause] Goofy lookin’ bastard, innit he? The hell is he doin’ ere?”

Elevator Mandarin: Keeping It Short and Simple

All in all, these questions form the backbone of what I call Elevator Mandarin, arising in a wide variety of settings, from a bus station in Guangzhou to the executive lounge at the top of Jin Mao Tower, and mostly based upon random interactions with complete strangers. In other words, small talk.

[In more formal contexts, it’s common for the host to introduce the foreigner by name and home country, and so, several questions will be already answered.]
Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai, China. Photo credit: Bamboo Compass

Nearly every single question has been asked of me in the elevator of my apartment building in Taipei, Taiwan, and asked by neighboring residents – Curiorents who’ve seen me coming and going for the last eight years but never gave me as much as a 你好 (nǐ hǎo). Some already know the answers (thanks to local gossip) and others are genuinely in the dark, and thus, curious. All of a sudden, they find themselves stuck in the elevator with me, going up. It’s actually pretty funny.

No matter what the situation, be polite and keep it short and simple.

The Questions and Responses

1a. Where are you from? / Where do you come from?

从你在哪里? (cóng nǐ zài nǎlǐ?) – From where you are?

你来自哪里? (nǐ lái zì nǎlǐ?) – Where you come from?

The number one question you will be asked, everywhere, almost guaranteed, if it were possible to guarantee anything: The Origin Question.

Unfortunately, The Origin Question takes at least two different forms as seen above. Thanks to countless regional dialects and myriad accents, there are more. And worse, the grammar is unique and odd to the western ear. That’s why we have…

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: nǐ, cóng, nǎlǐ (you, from, where)

Listening and understanding is more important than responding. You’re free to challenge me on this; however, in my experience, comprehension is the egg before the chicken.

Graciously, sometimes elegantly, less is almost always more in Mandarin Chinese. And therefore, this question is extremely easy to answer – if you know where you’re from and how to say the name in Mandarin. But it is that simple. Because I’m from the U.S., my answer is one word, two syllables: 美国 (měi guó).

Now, I don’t want to get into the nuts and bolts of language and semantics, but listen for the keywords and know that if you’re from France, the answer is: 法国 (fà guó).

Of course, you could get fancy and say: I’m from the U.S., or I’m French: 我是法国人(wǒ shì fà guó rén), but it’s completely unnecessary. Skip the , shì, and rén.

EXTRA LEARNING SECTION: List of the most common foreign nationalities in China (other than American and French, which you’ve already got).


韩国 hán guó – Korea

日本 rì běn – Japan

缅甸 miǎn diàn – Myanmar (Burma)

越南 yuè nán – Vietnam

加拿大 jiā ná dà – Canada

印度 yìn dù – India

德国 dé guó – Germany

澳大利亚 ao dà lì yǎ – Australia

1b. Where in U.S.?

The more ambitious folks could take this a couple of steps further and explain exactly where they’re from, especially in the U.S., where according to U.N. statistics, a quarter of all Chinese immigrants wind up. Odds are good whoever you’re talking to has family in California. [It’s very common to hear, 我的儿子是在斯坦福大学的学生(wǒ de ér zi shì zài sī tǎn fú dà xué de xué shēng) – My son is a student at Stanford.]

Plus, the Chinese are crazy about traveling abroad; they may have already visited your home country, so they want to know if they’ve been to your hometown – or within a 500–mile radius. To have something in common helps the conversation continue, for better or for worse.

2. How long have you been in Shanghai?

多久你在上海 (duō jiǔ nǐ zài shàng hǎi?)

I’ve never set foot in a Mandarin class, so I’m assuming that some of the first stuff they teach you is the numbers, days, dates, times, etc. At least, that’s what I learned at the beginning of my on-going crash course in Survival Mandarin, emphasis on the word crash, and to this day I still count with my fingers.

Anyway, you’re 死定 (sǐ dìng) – screwed without knowing numbers 1 through 10 and the difference between days, months, and years.

Let’s say six months. “I’ve been in Shanghai for six months.” All you need to say is: 六个月 (liù gè yuè). There is absolutely no need to complicate things. Just answer the question like you were on a gameshow.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: duōjiǔ, nǐ, zài (how long, you, here)

Honestly, sometimes people ask this in ways I’m not even capable of explaining or translating. They use duōjiǔ in Taiwan, where I spend the bulk of my time, so it might be a little different in China.

3. How long are you planning to stay? / How long you will stay in China?

多久你会在中国留下来吗? (duō jiǔ nǐ huì zài zhōng guó liú xià lái ma?)

Man, I hate this question because it’s very easy to confuse with #2, but at the same time, I love it because it taught me the proper way to say 我不知道 (wǒ bù zhī dào)I don’t know to just about everything under the sun. What I do know is that liú means “stay”, and that implies the future. I think. Don’t quote me on that.

我不知道 (wǒ bù zhī dào), to put it bluntly, is awesome. It’s my second favorite Mandarin phrase after 我不在乎 (wǒ bù zài hū) – I don’t care.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: duō jiǔ nǐ huì zài zhōng guó liú xià lái ma

Yeah, I know, that’s all of the words. You really need to anticipate the question and memorize the pattern.

You know what’s weird? Here we are a couple of sentences into a relationship and we already know where you’re from and how long you’ve been here, but we don’t know your name. In fact, 你叫什么名字? (nǐ jiào shén me míng zì?) – What’s your name? isn’t even in the top 10 of questions you’ll be asked. I can’t remember the last time someone asked my name in Mandarin.

4. Do you speak Mandarin? / How’s your Mandarin?

你会说普通话吗? (nǐ huì shuō pǔ tōng huà ma?) – Do you speak Mandarin?

你会说国语 (nǐ huì shuō guó yǔ?) – Do you speak Chinese?

如何是你的普通话 (rúhé shì nǐ de pǔ tōng huà?) – How’s your Mandarin?

I’ve heard it phrased a bunch of different ways, but the gist is really, “Can we have a conversation in Chinese, or is this going be a pain in the ass? Cuz my English sucks.”

First of all, in a non-scientific estimation, there are three main ways to interpret Mandarin. There’s 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà), the official form of Chinese based on the Beijing dialect; 国语 (guó yǔ), the “national language” taught in schools; and 中文 (zhōng wén), which refers more or less to the written forms.  And sometimes, I hear 中国话 (zhōng guó huà), which literally means “spoken Chinese”, but my listening skills are questionable.

如何是你的 普通话 (rúhé shì nǐ de pǔ tōng huà?) – How’s your Mandarin? is probably the most common way I’ve been asked, mainly because I’ve already demonstrated the most basic linguistic skills by answering Questions 1 through 3.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: huì shuō (speak)

Not to be a wise guy, but consider the context; they’re never going to ask if you can speak Arabic, right? All you need to hear is 会说 (huì shuō).

How you respond is going to depend on your level of skill and motivation to continue the conversation. Since I’m a jaded and cynical old bastard, even though I’m capable of some decent Mandarin, I always, always say: 我讲一点点 (wǒ jiǎng yī diǎn diǎn) – I speak a little, mainly because I know what’s coming next.

5. Are you an English Teacher? / What do you do? / What’s your gig?

你是英语老师? (nǐ shì yīngy ǔ lǎo shī?) – You’re an English teacher, I assume.

你做什么工作 (nǐ zuò shén me gōng zuò?) – You do what work?

Taipei Cram School Graduation Day, 2008. The kid is probably running his father’s factory in Dongguan, I dunno.

I’m only half–joking when I say that the Chinese see a foreigner and assume you’re an English teacher. This applies mainly to Caucasians. Couldn’t tell you how many hundreds of times I’ve been jammed with the 老师 (lǎoshī) question. And to be fair, I’ve briefly taught English in both Taiwan and the U.S. And I look like somebody who’s read a few books and written a few pointless 10,000–word essays on Chaucer.

If you’re a teacher, you say, “我是一名英语教师” (wǒ shì yī bǔxí bān jiàoshī) – Yes, I am an English (cram school) teacher. To keep it real simple and stupid, just say, “对” (duì) – Correct.

If you’re not a teacher, you’re about to enter a whole new world of complications. 我是一个作家 (wǒ shì yīgè zuòjiā) – I’m a writer, so that leads to questions like, “What kind of writer?” or “What do you write?” and honestly, it’s almost easier to say I’m a teacher and let it go at that.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: shì, yīngyǔ, lǎoshī, gōngzuò (are, English, teacher, work)

At this point, I hope I’ve established a routine of common sense. But 补习班 (bǔxí bān) – Cram school.

6. Do you like it here? / How do you like it here?

你喜欢它在中国 (nǐ xǐhuān tā zài zhōngguó) – Do you like being in China?

你喜欢住在台湾?(nǐ xǐhuān zhù zài táiwān?) – Do you like living in Taiwan?

It’s not terribly surprising that it seems important to the Chinese that you like being in their country. They want to know that you’re happy. Now, I’m not telling you how to live your life, but I will advise you that there’s really only one response to this question.

我喜欢中国非常 (wǒ xǐhuān zhōngguó fēicháng) – I like China very much. If no one has mentioned this before, nobody, nowhere, wants to hear you talking shit about their country, especially when you’re in it. I don’t care if you’re ready to slash your wrists – lengthwise for results. You like China. End of.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: xǐhuān, zhōngguó (like, China)

7. Where are you staying? Where do you live?

你住在哪里? (nǐ zhù zài nǎlǐ?) – You stay where?

你在哪里居住在厦门 (nǐ zài nǎlǐ jūzhù zài xiàmén) You live where in Xiamen?

Of all the questions, this one leads to the most advanced vocabulary contingencies. Here’s what I say:

我 住在大安区,信义上道 (wǒ zhù zài dà’ān qū, xìnyì shàng dào) – I live in the Da’an District, on Xinyi Road. I don’t know if I’m right, but everybody seems to get the idea.

Now, in the elevator of my building, they usually say, 你住在四楼,对不对? (nǐ zhù zài sì lóu, duì bùduì?) – You live on the fourth floor, right?

foreigner-4Semi-well known Chinese superstition: the word for “four” 四 (sì) sounds like the word for “dead” 死 (sǐ), so people don’t like to live on the fourth floor of buildings, which is why a lot of foreigners live on the fourth floor. Personally, four is my favorite number, and I don’t care what floor I live on as long as it’s above ground.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: zhù, zài, nǎlǐ (stay/live, where)

8. What do you want? / What do you need?

你想要什么 (nǐ xiǎng yào shén me) – You want what?

你需要什么 (nǐ xū yào shén me?) – You need what?

This is somewhat specific to shopping and other service-related transactions. It’s pretty uncommon to hear, “我怎么帮你 (wǒ zěnme bāng nǐ) – How can I help you? Which is what we’re used to the West. The problem is how they ask: in one breath, so it’s all jammed up and sounds like “xiàoshénme”. Walk up to any convenience store counter and the kid will say, “xūyào shénme?” And you better be ready to tell him.

给我一个打火机 (gěi wǒ yīgè dǎhuǒjī) – Give me a (cigarette) lighter.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: yào, shén me (want, what)

9. For here or to go?

在这里吃还是带走? (zài zhèlǐ hái shì dài zǒu?) – For here or to go?

外带? (wài dài) – For take away?

带走 (dài zǒu)? – To go?

McDonald’s. 麦当劳 (mài dāng láo). The Golden Arches. 麦当劳叔叔 (mài dāng láo shū shu) – Ronald McDonald kept me alive during my first few months in Asia. No matter how I butchered the Mandarin: “我要两个起司汉堡” (wǒ yào liǎng gè qǐsī hàn bǎo), I got my two cheeseburgers. Oh, and, 带走 (dài zǒu).


You could say, “这里” (zhèlǐ) – For here, but I wouldn’t, even if I’m planning on eating it right there at the counter.

Also Good To Know:

可乐 (kělè) – Coca-cola

炸薯条 (zhà shǔ tiáo) – French fries

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: wài dài, dài zǒu

10. Where do you want to go?

你想去哪里 (nǐ xiǎng qù nǎlǐ)

I thought it would be nice to close the segment with something simple but useful. Even the most hardcore, tree-hugging environmentalist is going to use some form of motorized transportation.

In light of the possibilities, I’m not going to suggest a spoken response to the question. No, I highly recommend that you have your destination printed out in Chinese; whether you ask someone to do it for you, or use Google Maps and do it yourself – get that shit in writing, so the ticket agent or taxi driver can read it. This is also why I always, always take a business card of an establishment, if it’s offered. I have shoe boxes full of business cards. You never know when you might be coming back, or, you never know when you might need to visit a place that’s just down the street from said venue.


Of course, you could be adventurous and rely on your Mandarin skills.


By Christian Adams

Writer and musician in South East Asia

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