We’ve all met him: the foreigner who’s lived in China for years but doesn’t speak a lick of Chinese. How does he do it? How does he remain, against all odds, untouched by his surroundings, pristine in his primal form, like an insect preserved in amber? Some look down on this type of compatriot expatriate, but not me. I know that to go 10 or 20 years without learning how to order takeout is not luck – it is skill, refined through decades of indifference to local culture. Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to develop this skill. So if you have a Chinese textbook in your home, burn it. Here’s how to get by in China without ever learning Chinese.

The most important issue is also the simplest to solve. Gone are the days when expats had to carry photos of kung pao chicken every time they left the house. Most restaurants today have an English menu or at least one with pictures. All you need to provide is a finger that points.

Like a patient with Alzheimer’s, carry a card with your name and home address on your person at all times. That way, when a Chinese passerby finds you wandering around Huilongguan at three in the morning, he can direct you to your home or healthcare facility. Once you’ve mastered finding your home, you can start to collect business cards from the places you frequent, showing them to cab drivers whenever necessary. If this ever fails, don’t panic. There’s always the foolproof strategy of putting your friend who knows Mandarin on the phone to direct the cab driver.

A total inability to speak Mandarin might limit your career opportunities elsewhere, but not here! Most companies here are willing to dramatically lower their standards to accommodate native English speakers. What’s more, the more professional your company is, the better your co-workers’ English will be. Most will have a better grasp of English grammar than you and some might even possess a larger vocabulary. Take this opportunity to brush up on your mother tongue. But if you can’t learn from your co-workers, they can still learn from you. In fact, by making no attempt at all to converse in Chinese, you’re actually doing them a favor: forcing them to improve their English. Don’t mind the whispering behind your back, in their heart of hearts they thank you for it.

I’m not going to lie. Living in China without learning Chinese is difficult and should only be attempted by the truly obstinate. Of course life is much easier if you know Chinese. But what, you might ask, is the absolute minimum you must know to get by? As long as you know these two simple phrases, there is no limit to the amount of time you can spend in China:

听不懂 (tīngbùdong) – “I don’t understand.”This is the magic bullet. Anytime someone says something to you with tones, this should be your go-to. (NOTE:This phrase is much more effective if said with a blatant foreign accent.) 

我是美国人 (woshìměiguórén) – “I’m an American.” If someone is still bothering you after you’ve told them repeatedly you tīngbùdǒng, play this trump card. When a Chinese person hears this from someone who has made no attempt to engage with their culture, they usually leave that person alone. Forever.

Photo: Smithsonian

Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog