Almost two years ago my husband and I had a trial by fire experience in China. We were exposed to a different culture, language, and country... while also meeting our new teenage daughter that spoke no English at all!
We knew that she wouldn’t know any of our language so we decided to learn some of hers.
The Chinese language intimidated both of us, and with no idea how to get our hands of resources to help us learn, we did our best to learn what we thought would be the most helpful phrases while we were in China completing our Chinese adoption. But like most things, we didn’t know what would be the most helpful until we were there.
The 5 Chinese phrases that I am going to talk about were, by far, the most used and most helpful during our time in China trying to adjust to life with a Chinese teenager who had no idea what we were saying. We did have a guide for the most part, but we had a lot of time without anyone to help us talk to each other.
The Phrases I Used Most In China
1. 我是你的妈妈/爸爸 (wǒ shì nǐ de mā ma/bà ba) - I am your mom/dad.
This may sound really obvious, that we would need to know how to say this, or even that they would know that we are their parents. But family is really new to children and teens that have not known parents before.
Being able to say 我是你的妈妈/爸爸 (wǒ shì nǐ de mā ma/bà ba) is particularly helpful for the adoption of small children that may be scared and not understand what is happening.
I used this Chinese phrase many times a day during our time in China with our daughter. And even though she speaks English now, I still use it from time to time.
2. 没关系，放心 (méi guān xi, fàng xīn) - It’s okay, relax/rest assured.
I lost count of the number of times I said this particular Chinese phrase in the two week period we were completing the adoption! Our daughter cried many tears the first week because she was sad to say goodbye to her nannies and friends.
I told her 没关系 (méi guān xi) so many times that I think she finally believed me. I’m sure my accent was terrible because I didn’t understand tones, or how to pronounce Chinese words, but I think she appreciated my effort to speak to her in her native language.
If you can only learn one phrase (or think you can only remember one), I would say 没关系 (méi guān xi) should be a front runner for sure. Adding 放心 (fàng xīn) makes it even better and more comforting.
3. 这是我们领养的孩子 (zhè shì wǒ men lǐng yàng de hái zi) - This is our adopted child.
Learn it, memorize, get the tones right, you will need it.
We had many experiences with Chinese locals that were simply curious about what we were doing with a Chinese child. They were very kind, but very inquisitive.
When we had our guide with us she would shoo people away, but when it was just us - and we could figure out what they were asking (using a Chinese language app or translation program) - then we could answer with 这是我们领养的孩子 (zhè shì wǒ men lǐng yàng de hái zi).
They usually understood what we were saying and said goodbye.
For more on how to talk about your children here, check out this lesson:
4. 你要不要上厕所 (nǐ yào bu yào shàng cè sǔo) - Do you have to use the bathroom?
This was the most practical phrase, and we used it daily.
Our daughter would go extremely long periods of time without visiting a restroom and since she needs a wheelchair, we had very limited public restrooms that we could take her to. If we had the opportunity to use the restroom, we would use this phrase to ask if she needed to go.
If you are going to be completing a Chinese adoption and the child is potty trained, 你要不要上厕所 (nǐ yào bu yào shàng cè sǔo) is a great phrase to learn.
By the way, this question uses the verb-not-verb structure. You can learn more about this structure, and how to use it with different verbs to ask "yes" or "no" questions, here.
5. 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ) - I love you.
Our daughter was sad and needed to know that we loved her. She needed to hear it and comprehend what we were saying in the Chinese language: 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ).
With this phrase, we had our guide help us with pronunciation so we would get it right. She seemed to get the general idea with the other phrases because of the context and body language, but I didn’t want to leave any room for question with this one.
To learn more about this phrase, check out this FREE lesson.
Other Phrases and Cultural Nuances That Would Have Been Helpful
Chinese people drink hot water, even in the summer. The first time we went to a restaurant and clumsily asked for water to drink, it came to us steaming hot. We were in China in July and it was incredibly hot so we were really hoping for an ice cold drink. Which leads me to this phrase:
冰水 (bīng shuǐ) - ice water
For all of the reasons stated above, this would have been a great Chinese phrase to know during such a hot summer in China.
冰水 (bīng shuǐ) is covered in this lesson, including how to ask for ice water in Chinese.
你渴吗 / 你饿吗 (nǐ kě ma/ nǐ è ma?) - Are you thirsty/ Are you hungry?
I would have loved being able to ask our daughter this in her native language without the aid of an app. Our app didn’t work without wifi so having the Chinese phrases to ask when we were out on the town, would have been invaluable.
For more on asking yes or no questions with 吗 (ma), check out this lesson:
*TIP: Check out our live hangout How to Read a Chinese Menu 101! It will totally transform your experience eating at a Chinese restaurant!
Yoyo Chinese Adoptive Family Scholarship Program
The only regret I have is not learning more Mandarin in preparation for our adoption trip and the transition of becoming a multicultural family.
It helped our bonding tremendously in the beginning to be able to even say these simple phrases to her. If you are on the fence about learning Mandarin in preparation for your Chinese adoption, I encourage you to get off of the fence and go for it!
Yoyo Chinese has launched a scholarship program to give families with adopted children from China FREE access to their courses. This is an incredible opportunity that can make a HUGE difference for your family. Learn more here.