The Chinese language is very difficult, because each word can be pronounced in 5 different ways to have up to 5 different meanings. In general, if you don't have months to begin professional Mandarin lessons, rely on written Chinese as a better tool. It is good to know how to say simple phrases such as "thank you" ("She She"), and "hello" ("Nee How"), "how are you?" ("Nee Hi How Ma"), and "great" ("Hi How"). Other than these phrases, I would avoid spoken Mandarin.
When traveling, plan out your trip, and have someone at the hotel write out simple phrases in Chinese, so that you will have these for quick exit strategies in a taxi or public transportation. Most taxi drivers in China do not speak English. If you ask if they speak English, they may nod their heads. This is simply polite in Asia, but probably does not mean that they speak English. You may be blocked away from where you started before you realize that you can not communicate with your driver.
I suggest two basic phrases always to be on a small note pad in your pocket:
1) "Please take me to ... Hotel, at this address: ......" (Hotel names in Mandarin are neither written or spoken the same as in English, so this is very important.) If you are traveling on business, have a colleague write the exact location of the office on a piece of paper in Chinese for you. This may not be needed, but if it is, you will be glad that you did it.
2) "How much will that cost?" (Have the taxi driver write this down on a piece of paper in Yuan. Be ready to do a quick calculation of the cost—you should have an approximate exchange rate handy and a small calculator all the time. The airport is a good place to get the current exchange rate.)
If you are shopping in a public market, you will find that most merchants speak some English, and occasionally, some European languages as well. When negotiating in China, here are a few simple things to remember.
1) Be polite, and friendly, but firm.
2) Almost everything is negotiable in Asia (with a few exceptions). Even retail stores will normally negotiate, if you buy enough stuff.
3) Start your negotiations at 50% of the list or spoken price. Keep the negotiations light, and remember to smile. I suggest starting the negotiations like this:
Merchant: "The price is 1000 Yuan."
You: "I will give you 500." (Smile).
Merchant: "No, no, no. 1000 Yuan."
You: "500." (Be pleasant).
Merchant: "OK, 900 Yuan.
You: "450 Yuan. (Smile).
Merchant: Shocked. "No, No. That’s wrong."
You: "OK. 400 Yuan."
At this point, the merchant will either begin to back down or get very frustrated. If the merchant wants to get the best of you, or if the product is already priced very, very low, you will know by what he/she does next.
Use some good judgment, and be sure you have gotten the price from other competitors before you start negotiations. Remember, if you agree on a price for something, you should buy it. It is very rude to agree on a price and then walk away. It is not rude to walk away from a bad negotiation or high price. In fact, you might find that when you walk away in the middle of a negotiation that is not going as planned you will get the price that you wanted for the product. Remember, be polite, and be fair. Everyone deserves to make a living.
Places to visit in Beijing: The Great Wall, of course. The Forbidden City—naturally. Ming’s Tomb. Chairman Mao’s Shrine. Tianamen Square The summer palace. Here are the best tips that I can give to you concerning each of these sights:
1) Use a tour guide! This will not set you back very much money (about $10 an hour, and possibly as little as $10 an hour with a car and driver if you are going to be gone all day). The value of having a local tell you the story is incredible. Many of the sights do not have English explanations, and the rich Chinese history can only be told verbally anyway. You have spent a lot of money to get to China, don’t be silly by not spending a few dollars on tour guides. You will be happy that you did. Make sure your tour guide is good at speaking your language. Ask to speak to them before you go out (on the phone)—if possible. Don’t think that just walking the Forbidden City is the same without a tour guide—it is beautiful, but understanding how the Emperor thought about the city, why it is divided into 3 sections, and where the center of the world is located is hidden truth to the visitor without the insight of a local guide.
2) Don’t buy gifts at these tourist locations. You will be able to get gifts in many locations for less than 50% of what they will cost at these big attractions. Much of what you will want to buy is available in hundreds of locations across the city, near your hotel. Unless you are really pressed for time, you should not buy gifts inside any of these tourist locations.
3) If you go inside Ming’s Tomb or Chairman Mao’s Tomb, you will be asked to be very quiet. You should respect these wishes. This is about respect for these historic individuals and the people who have traveled a great distance (like you) to see these sights.
4) One last thing to consider. Wash Rooms. You should do as the locals do when it comes to making sure you always have tissues with you when you travel in Asia. This is a very standard rule, whether you are at a restaurant, at a tourist location or elsewhere. You will need tissues when you visit the Wash Room (toilet) and will also need them when eating from fast food restaurants or street vendors. Tissues and paper napkins are not given out for free, and may not be available at all - depending upon where you are.
China is a great place to visit. Beijing. Shanghai. Chungdu (where the majority of the world’s population of Panda Bears are born and leased to zoo’s all over the planet). Hong Kong. Tibet. I encourage anyone who has an interest in Chinese culture to explore one of the most fascinating countries on the globe.