In any city, there are places that you need to visit early in your stay, and others that serve as useful navigation points. It could be anything from finding the local hospital to locating the nearest subway station. Learning how to say some of these places in the city in Chinese before you arrive or early on in your stay can make life much easier, and often lead to discovering other places and people that you would have missed. It can be tempting to use a ride-hailing app for every trip, but this robs you of the opportunity to flex those language muscles and make polite conversation with a total stranger. Read on to learn how to say enough places in Mandarin to go from newbie to tour guide!
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Learn Chinese to Navigate Yourself Around Your City
Now you’ve done it. You’re on the other side of the planet in a place where you don’t speak the language or read most of the signs. You’ve eaten out of the convenience store for the fifth time in four days, and you keep asking yourself, “Are there any supermarkets near me?” Your comfort zone is only a few blocks from where you’re staying. It’s time to take a photo of your address, flag down a taxi, and try not to panic when the driver asks, “你要去哪裡?”
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Places Around the City Center / 市中心 / shì zhōngxīn
It’s not in the middle for nothing. The center of any city is where you’ll find the main offices for essential services like banks and the post office, and are often the best bet for getting someone who speaks English unless of course, you want to try your luck and newly-acquired Mandarin skills to open a bank account or send your mom the tea set you found for cheap. It’s also where you’ll find the department stores and larger hotels if you feel like splashing out for a night in a king-size bed.
Post office / 郵局 / yóujú
Mail letters and packages, and even do your banking depending on where you are.
Bank / 銀行 / yínháng
If someone walked up to you and said, “I want to go to the bank,” you’d probably respond by asking, “Which one?” Knowing the name will, even if your pronunciation is less than perfect, get the job done.
Department Store / 百貨商店 / bǎihuò shāngdiàn
As with banks, finding a specific department store you want will require you to have the name. Fortunately, many of these are borrowed from English or other languages.
Hotel / 酒店 / jiǔdiàn or 飯店 / fàndiàn
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Means of Transportation
The Train Station / 火車站 / huǒchē zhàn
For a long or short journey, the train is a great way to get a look at what’s around you. Depending on the urban planning of where you are, the train station may be in the center of the city or miles away. Regardless of where it is, the surrounding area, especially by the main station, is usually something of a transportation hub for the city. The subway/metro will have a stop here, and lots of local bus routes will shuttle commuters in and out of the area all day. This is also where you’re likely to find most intercity/express buses, which are great for going places the train doesn’t or for when you want to travel after hours. The area around the station can also be a good spot to find a cheap hotel for the night, or a motel for a couple of hours if you just need to put your feet up and kill a few hours.
Metro Station or Subway Station / 地鐵站 / dìtiě zhàn
MRT Station / 捷運站 / jié yùn zhàn
Having access to good mass transit makes getting around so easy it feels like cheating. Just don’t forget to come up for air every so often and check out what’s happening at ground level. Zipping back and forth under a city without exploring its streets is cheating yourself out of getting to know a place.
Bonus word: nearest / 最近的 / zuìjìn de
If you find you’ve adventured enough for one day or wandered too far, grab a cab and say, “zuìjìn dìtiě zhàn.” This will get you back to the nearest metro station.
Intercity Bus / 城際巴士 / chéng jì bāshì or 客運 / kèyùn
Asking for one of these will get you directed to a coach, sometimes with plush recliner-style seats and personal entertainment systems for each passenger to boot. These are great options for cheap overnight travel. Sit back, relax, watch an old movie, and wake up in another city.
Airport / 飛機場 / fēijī chǎng
Whether you’re taking a quick trip or it’s time to head home, you’ll need to go to the airport at some point, and getting there is only half the task. Once you arrive, and possibly before you get off the bus, cab, or train that brought you there, you need to know which terminal to stop at. Hop off at the domestic terminal ( 國內航站樓 / guónèi háng zhàn lóu ) if you’re staying in the country and just headed off for a few days/weeks of travel. If you’re headed beyond the border for a trip abroad or to take your new-found language skills elsewhere permanently, get off at the international terminal ( 國際航站樓 / guójì háng zhàn lóu ). If those seem a bit daunting (and they are) you can shorten them to 國內的 ( guónèi de ) and 國際的 ( guójì de ) to get the job done.
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Places to Eat and Drink
Supermarket / 超級市場 / chāojí shìchǎng
These can range in size from sleepy mom-and-pop shops nestled in an alley to multi-story monsters where you can buy not only food but appliances and clothes. The little neighborhood shops are great for getting in and out fast with a few items. Big places are your best bet for tracking down anything you’ve been missing. Caesar salad dressing? A nice sharp cheese? Maybe, but don’t be surprised if it costs a premium.
Restaurant / 餐廳 / cāntīng
Eating local will always be more cost-effective than visiting western-inspired spots, and discovering new foods is half the joy of a new place. Many restaurants have pictures on the menu for easy ordering but learn a few staple dishes just in case. Diners wishing to live on the edge can try pointing at a random item on the menu. Results will vary from delicious stir-fries to grilled duck tongues.
Bar / 酒吧 / jiǔbā or Pub / 酒館 / jiǔguǎn
Traveling around the city can be thirsty work. Find a nice spot, maybe with outdoor seating, try the local ale, and watch the people go by.
Convenience Store / 便利店 / biànlì diàn
This seems like the kind of thing you’d never need to ask for but it happens, and the number of services that some convenience stores now offer has made them indispensable.
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Pharmacy / 藥店 / yàodiàn or 藥局 / yào jú
You’ve got a headache, and you need it to go away now. Fortunately for you, pharmacies are nearly as ubiquitous as convenience stores, and you can probably pantomime your way through describing what ails you. Pharmacies are also great spots for baby supplies if you’ve got a traveling companion that’s still in diapers.
If you want to move past dramatic reenactments of your symptoms or don’t feel comfortable demonstrating them in public, here are a few common ailments:
headache / 頭痛 / tóutòng
sore throat / 喉嚨痛 / hóulóng tòng
nasal congestion / 鼻塞 / bísè
allergies / 過敏 / guòmǐn
stomachache / 腹痛 / fùtòng
diarrhea / 腹瀉 / fùxiè
Clinic / 診所 / zhěnsuǒ
If over-the-counter medicine doesn’t fix you up, it’s time to see a doctor. Clinics are a great alternative to crowded hospitals if you’re in a big city, and walk-ins are usually welcome. Wait times can vary, but the upside is that you’re more likely to see the same doctor if you need a follow-up visit, and many have an in-house pharmacy.
You can skip over the visit to a general physician if you know what kind of doctor you need and get straight to a specialist, as most don’t require any kind of referral. Dental clinics usually require an appointment, and getting a recommendation from a friend isn’t a terrible idea.
pediatric clinic / 兒科診所 / érkē zhěnsuǒ
gynecologist / 婦科醫生 / fùkē yīshēng
orthopedic clinic / 骨科診所 / gǔkē zhěnsuǒ
dental clinic / 牙科診所 / yákē zhěnsuǒ
Hospital / 醫院 / yīyuàn
Hopefully, you’ll never need it, but knowing the location of the hospital that is closest to where you live, work, or study is a must wherever you are in the world. Accidents happen no matter how healthy you are, and health issues arise at the least convenient times. If you have a condition you’re already aware of, knowing how to say this or having it written down can help get you through the sometimes daunting registration process. Even if you can’t verbally communicate what the problem is, you’ve signaled to hospital staff that you need some kind of help simply by walking in the door. When in doubt, head to the emergency room ( 急診室 / jízhěn shì ) for serious medical issues.
If you’re planning to stay for work you may need to get a health check ( 健康檢查 / jiànkāng jiǎnchá ) as part of the visa process. This is usually a basic physical that includes a blood test. You may need to bring passport-size photos with you, but many hospitals have a photo booth ( 照片展台 / zhàopiàn zhǎntái ) located somewhere on the premises. Just remember, don’t smile!
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Official Offices and Services
Immigration Office / 移民局 / yímín jú
This is where you apply for and renew a visa ( 簽證 / qiānzhèng ), and pick up your resident card ( 身份證 / shēnfèn zhèng ) if you need one. Dress smart if you need help, and be polite. Remember those pictures you needed at the hospital? You’ll probably need them here, too.
Police Station / 警察局 / jǐngchá jú
This is one place that, hopefully, you’ll never need to visit. However, lost passports and credit cards need to be reported. Items left in taxis will sometimes end up here, as well.
Embassy / 大使館 / dàshǐ guǎn
You’re unlikely to need to visit your embassy, but it’s good to know where it is, just in case.
Keep Learning Chinese to Expand Your Comfort Zone!
Armed with this new vocabulary, you’re ready to set off in search of food, drink, and whatever else your city has to offer. Knowing how to get yourself around will take you farther than if you always depend on your phone, and this will lead to discovering even more places. Keep adding to this list and your comfort zone in your new home will grow by leaps and bounds in a short time. And when you’ve had enough urban adventure for one day, pull out that picture you took of your address, flag down a taxi, and say, “我想回家!” ( wǒ xiǎng huí jiā! / I want to go home!)