China Musings #14: The Delight of Studying Mandarin


One of the more delightful experiences on my Mandarin study journey are the reactions I get from people.

Despite being spoken natively by over a billion people, Mandarin is a very hard language to learn. That’s why Chinese – not all, but most – get very happy to hear foreigners speak it, no matter how little or how badly.

Sometimes it really just takes a “Nĭ hăo” (Hello) to elicit a thoroughly well-intended “You speak Chinese very well.” Such reactions are ridiculous in their judgement, yet endearing in their intention.

A still common, slightly cheesy, yet increasingly outdated way to respond is with the question “Nǎlǐ, nǎlǐ?” (Where, where?), a polite way to deny the praise that's been given. For example, if someone says you are beautiful and you respond with “Nǎlǐ, nǎlǐ?,” you are implying “Beautiful? Me? Where? I don’t see myself being beautiful.”

The origin of this expression is linked to traditional Chinese Confucianism, where being modest and not revealing your strengths is seen as a good personal trait.

So no matter if in a cab, at a coffee shop, or with security guards on the street – sometimes even the slightest display of your Mandarin skills can conjure up a smile on locals’ faces.

— A colleague took this pic of me at our team meeting today. We had switched the language to Chinese to accommodate for our non-English speaking staff, so I lost myself in studying characters while everything was being translated.

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