I’m excited today to run this guest post by Anna who runs the wonderful blog Lost Panda. Most of the sentences below are used for everyday life conversations in China, so they might come handy if you can memorize them.It is also very helpful if you want to know what to say when chatting in Chinese!
If you don’t know how to say a Chinese word then feel free to check our other articles which can be found on our blog to get some help.
Usually in every first year of Chinese language study, you will learn the sentence “Have you eaten yet?” 你吃了吗? (ni chi le ma?) and contrary to your first believe Chinese people asking you this question are not interested in inviting you for lunch or dinner.
For everyone who has been in China this is nothing new. However, for all those out there who have no previous experience with Chinese or have never been to China, they might be surprised.
I was. Even after my teacher explained the use of this question, I still was sceptical. How weird to go around and ask if people have eaten yet, instead of just saying ‘hello’.
The usual explanation given by the book and teacher is that Chinese people simply really care about food, or that there was not enough food in the past, thus the concern if you have eaten already.
I have totally immersed myself in the custom. Every morning I greet our security guard with a happy “Did you eat?” 吃饭了没? (chifan le mei?), and he replies with a vigorous “Yes, I have.” 吃了(chile).
And even when my mother-in-law calls in the evenings, it is appropriate to start the conversation with a “Have you eaten?”.
Other forms of Chinese oral greetings
Of course, there are way more possibilities to greet people in the Chinese language than asking about your “eating habits”.
Chinese people prefer to greet each other by asking what the other one is doing, was doing or is going to do. “Where are you going” 你去哪儿? (ni qu naer?) or “What are you doing?” 你干什么? (ni gan shenme?) or “Are you busy?” 你忙吗? (ni mang ma?).
There is no need to explain where you are going or what you are doing exactly. Those questions are meant as a greeting, and the asker is usually not interested in details. It is not supposed to be an intrusion into your personal space, but just expressing concern.
Actually, to most questions, like “what are you doing”, “where are you going”, etc. you can simply answer “Just hanging out/ having fun” 去玩儿 (qu wan er). The verb 玩 (wan) literally means “to play”, “to have fun” or “to hang out”. However, it is used frequently in a way that makes it hard to translate. The word 玩 (wan) is able to adapt to the context. For example, when my husband and I go out to get some groceries, and people ask us what we are doing, we would still answer qu wan er. Obviously, we didn’t go out to play, so in this context it would be translated as “We went grocery shopping”. Another example, the question “What are your plans for this weekend?” could be 周末去哪儿玩儿? (zhoumo qu na er wan er?).
You see greetings in China are very simple. The Chinese language is very flexible.
On a site note
People in the village my Chinese parents-in-law live love to ask “When did you come back?” 什么时候回来了? (shenme shihou huilai le?), in their local dialect of course. The funny thing is, we are actually back home often. Lately every weekend, and there was a time when we stayed for months. For weeks people would ask us when we came back, even though they knew. It is another form of greeting and caring about us.
Curiously, after a period of about four weeks, people will start asking “When are you leaving?” 什么时候走? (shenme shihou zou?). Sometimes I think it is because people expect us to leave again, but sometimes I think some of the less friendly neighbours are actually really hoping for us to leave. A foreigner in a small village can cause quite of an interruption in their daily routine…
About the Author:
Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.