Top 10 English Words You Will Hear In China (& I never want to hear again)

By: Sarah Bennett

Living in China as an expat is the best thing I have ever done in my life. It’s a crazy country, mixing up interesting, historical awesomeness, cultural differences and the state of being maddening all at the same time.

I was fortunate, (or unfortunate to some), to live in cities with few foreigners, so capable English speakers were few and far between, allowing me to gain a greater knowledge of the Chinese language itself.

This however, led me to begin to despise certain aspects of my own language which were repeated to me, over and over and over and over again. I appreciate for the people that spoke these words, it was a hugely overwhelming experience to speak to a foreigner and I’m not blaming them for the influence of Western culture on their limited English vocabulary.

But it grew very frustrating.

So I present my Top 10 now-despised words and phrases (with tongue firmly in cheek!):

1.“Welcome China” – Now, as a self-confessed grammar Nazi, this drives me up the wall. As a culturally-sensitive human being, I appreciate the sentiment. As an expat with two years experience living in China, it drives me nuts.

2.“Oh my Lady Gaga!” – The term “oh em gee” (OMG) has been around since 1917 (check me and my use of the Oxford English Dictionary) and has since been well integrated into modern culture. The Chinese children seem to be adopting their own version of it due to the rise of that oh-so-crazy-and-individual pop artist. At first it was funny, then it just grated on me. Although I do confess to liking her Ladyship.

3.“You’re tall!” – Stating the crazy-obviousness every time I met someone new grew to be a pain in the posterior. I am a lofty 5’11” (180cm) and with the average Chinese woman being 5’2” (157cm) and for men, 5’5” (166cm) I was pretty much 99.9%[1] of the time taller than any Chinese person I met. So you don’t need to keep reminding me of that fact!

4.“Buy this, cheap!” – Maybe this one can be counted in most South-Asian countries, but nevertheless, China had its fair share too, especially at main attractions like the Great Wall. No, I do not want to buy a souvenir, I am impatient at haggling! I know some people thrive on this, I on the other hand have mostly bought all the tat I need, so thanks and I’m buying earplugs to pretend to be deaf now.

5.“American” – Nobody in China has heard of the UK. Expats are always seen as American because they’re the other very big country in the world. I am not American, nor have I ever been to America. I do not live in a sitcom!

6.“Beckham” – So there are a few knowledgeable Chinese out there. “England, you know Beckham?!” And of course I answer yes, every time. I am best friends with David Beckham in the eyes of many a Chinese taxi driver.

7.“McDonalds?” – Questioned when being invited to dinner. Contrary to popular Chinese beliefs, not every Westerner consumers McDonalds at a rate of knots. I wholly prefer the food of the Chinese cuisine kind, due to its competitive price, availability and experience of deliciousness.

8.“Handsome” – Watch as young expat males turn into predators at the repetition of this word… OK, very broad sweeping statement I admit but more often true than not. How could a man resist all those gorgeous Chinese women?

9.“Beautiful” – Imagine being called beautiful because of the colour of your skin, or hair. We’re often told that beauty is inside you, but we’re all still as superficial as each other and the Chinese are no exception. God help any guy who wants to be in my life as I am now allergic to this word and do not believe it, having been called it an uncountable number of times in two years.

10.“Hello, *giggle*” – I know it will be difficult to avoid this one back in a world where I use my mobile phone a lot more often, but at least it will be said without that giggle. As if there is some stupid reverence to speak to a foreigner. Every time it happened, I just wanted to take the person aside and explain to them “I’m not a celebrity, I am a normal human being who eats and sleeps and works just like you do. I just look a little different. No. Big. Deal!” But I didn't know the Chinese for that.

I tell you what, I sympathise a lot more with celebrities after spending all this time in China.

Which word would annoy you the most?

[1] Not a scientific study, just my correct estimation.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingSarah Bennett is a British expat living in China. Blog description: Sarah blogs about TEFL, life in China, travels and everything in between.
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Contest Comments » There are 49 comments

Stephanie wrote 10 years ago:

Hahaha, oh my Lady Gaga! Loved reading this! Gives a great insight into life as an expat in China! :)

The Guy wrote 10 years ago:

I can certainly relate to a lot of these. I go back to China soon and am not looking forward to the Lady Gaga one (I'm certainly not a fan of hers). The one that always riled me whilst out there is "You wanna watch?" I'd just lift my left wrist and go "No, I've already got one". Well done again Sarah for another insightful post.

Beth wrote 10 years ago:

Although Hong Kong seems to speak better English than it's Mainland mother, we do get a lot of these phrases here too! Except the American thing is the opposite-- most people here assume I'm from the UK. "You're from UK?" ... "No, I'm American" ..." Ohhhh, yes! London!"

Kim wrote 10 years ago:

Great read! Who would have thought that things so common could become so dreaded! Good Luck!

Bex wrote 10 years ago:

These are really funny Sarah - thanks for sharing! Only place I've been to which is 'Chinese' is Hong Kong - but would love to go to experience Chinese mainland one day.

Jessica Wray wrote 10 years ago:

Oh dear, I can basically hear people saying these things as I am reading. Although I´ve never been to China, having lived in Korea has allowed me to relate completely. Oh my Lady Gaga was a new one for me though!

Megan Claire wrote 10 years ago:

I love how nobody in China has heard of the crazy!!! Great read!

Blorge wrote 10 years ago:

Fascinating insight into some of the perhaps more niggling issues that can affect you in China - always being presumed to be American is a major problem wherever you go!

Hazel Glide wrote 10 years ago:

Love it! The language is 'English' yet as a nation we are apparently invisible! Great read :-)

Paul Jeffery wrote 10 years ago:

After working in China for three years now, this is so true....well done Sarah and good luck.

Nathan wrote 10 years ago:

I have very blonde hair. On an almost daily basis someone would just stroke it. On the train, bus, in a restaurant.

Sally wrote 10 years ago:

Hahaha oh I can sympathize. I live in Korea and could probably make a similar list, and "beautiful" would be right up on top. Along with "change" (pronounced chain-gee) which people say when they actually mean "switch"... arghhh! I love you Korea, but also I hate you, but I still love you. :)

Wiltshire Resident wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah's blog "the further adventures of Bennett" has been a fascinating read which I have followed since she first went to China and I can fully understand, as described in the pre-amble to this piece, what an exciting adventure it has been together with the little "annoyances" along the way. Highlighting some of the "soft" "unseen" impacts usually ignored in a travellers pre adventure planning will I am sure help those who once abroad may feel that they alone are suffering from stereotypical attention or understanding.

Sarah G wrote 10 years ago:

Great entry! Very interesting. Inspires me to travel. "One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things" Henry Miller

Joelle wrote 10 years ago:

Oh my Lady Gaga, this makes me want to go to China even more!! I love the quirkiness - I've started learning Mandarin, but maybe I won't need it?! Great post Sarah, thanks for sharing! :)

Roxy wrote 10 years ago:

Another great piece! It made me smile as usual :) Great to hear your stories.

Amy wrote 10 years ago:

oh wow! what a funny list of words- i'd love to go to china one day

Sarah Simmons wrote 10 years ago:

These are hilarious - China is a really fun place to read about!

Cate wrote 10 years ago:

Having never really followed a travel blog before, I love how Sarah makes her experience so accessible. As someone who easily bores of looking at other people's holiday pictures, I really enjoy reading about day to day musings as opposed to the over rated predictable tourist ramblings that again is another switch off for me. Getting to know China through the eyes (or rather words) of a good writer allows you to share the experience with them in your own time rather than having to sit through endless pictures that at the end of the day are meaningless to everyone except the person who took them. Look forward to the next entry!

Deborah wrote 10 years ago:

Yes I agree lots of awkward and amusing translations of English in China, but perhaps indicates how difficult our language and grammar is to learn?

Kate wrote 10 years ago:

The thing that I really love about Sarah's blog is that you get a real feel for life where she is, not the touristy patter about landmarks or temples, but a genuine insight into the little day to day things, like constantly having your height commented upon or people making assumptions about what you will, or won't, eat! Well done, Sarah, and thank you.

CMT wrote 10 years ago:

Love the humour! The comment about being tall made me laugh; there seems to be no compunction in Asia about stating the obvious. One year, when returning from a very yummy 4-week vacation to Europe, our nanny greeted us with "oh, you got fat"!!!!!! Thank you .... because we'd missed the obvious despite the fact our pants don't fit anymore:-). Great read!

Terry wrote 10 years ago:

Oh it's something about heard these ten words often as most of us in Zhangzhou city is poor in speaking English,they just want to say something you know or you familiar with and they thought you May fact we know much information on UK especially the premier league--so many fans here,but,forgive our shitttttt spoken language.that explain much.

Uncle D wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah you make the simpler travel of the new millennium so interesting and with all the tech used today easier to follow than when I travelled a bit in the late 70's!!

Kaho wrote 10 years ago:

Your list is so entertaining and humorous! I love it! I wish I came up with as creative and witty as yours!! Thanks for sharing your 10 English Words You Hear in China!

Lez wrote 10 years ago:

Very well written, and a great insight in to a world I know little about, having never been there. Some great amusing phrases in there :)

Cinnie wrote 10 years ago:

Interesting insight. I've never been to China, but my friends (American) have come back with similar tales. Speaking as an American, I don't think people realize that English speaking nations actually speak slightly different languages. The farther apart they are, geographically, the greater the difference. But people who have never heard of the U.K? That one's hard to imagine. Good blog.

Slacker wrote 10 years ago:

I like it. Even I would be above the average height!

Meghan wrote 10 years ago:

"buy this - cheap!" - haha, I definitely experienced that while traveling in South East Asia! I actually had a man chase me down the street in Hanoi, Vietnam, because his hammock was SUCH A GOOD DEAL! SO CHEAP!

Prissick wrote 10 years ago:

Fascinating read, Sarah. Great to hear that you're best friends with Mr Beckham!

Mave Knight wrote 10 years ago:

It's great to see the English language being accepted more in china,just gland they have not picked up any cocney words or expressions.?

Nat wrote 10 years ago:

brilliant! loved this. makes you wonder whether surrounding countries would call you an "american" too....

Stefan wrote 10 years ago:

Great read. Makes you wonder what words we use to expats of other nations here in the UK. Sometimes foreign sayings have a certain je ne sais quoi.

Richard wrote 10 years ago:

I've never been to China, but I can imagine these things to be true!

Kimmy I AfterGlobe wrote 10 years ago:

Love it! SO funny! Makes me excited to get to China.

Mary Gabbett wrote 10 years ago:

At 5'2" tall, maybe I'm secretly Chinese. Living with a 6'2" man and a 5'4" 12 yr-old step-daughter makes me feel like I'm a munchkin most of the time. It might be nice to visit a place where I'm average height!

Heather wrote 10 years ago:

These are hilarious and I wish I'd heard more of them while I was there! I got a lot of giggles and even more "hellos!" I also had women come up and rub my skin while saying things like "so white" and "beautiful." I felt like a super model over there! LOL

Brett wrote 10 years ago:

Brilliant read and extremely insightful! I'm just happier it is 'oh my lady gaga' opposed to 'oh my Jusin Bieber'! And you have got to love brand Beckham. Great blog! Keep it up!

Mrs Ump wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah has survived without the mention of a certain Red Manchester football team being thrown at her during her time in China, so I suspect that despite all the trials and tribulations of being an English white giant in China she has secretly enjoyed the culture. Her blogs indicate that, especially when it comes to the food.....

Paul wrote 10 years ago:

Sarah has a natural eye for the quirky things in life - and the ability to communicate them!

Martin wrote 10 years ago:

Great blog Sarah. I think I might take a trip to China soon, would be nice to go to a land where I am tall and handsome!

Claire wrote 10 years ago:

Loved reading this Sarah! I especially like 'Oh my Lady Gaga!'

This makes me giggle. I live in Korea so I know a bit about this. Personally, I don't mind the hellos. I find them charming most of the time. And I think I would love the oh my Lady Gaga phrase!

David Baas wrote 10 years ago:

After living in Korea for afew years I can relate to a number of these. My favourite is when young school kids are brave enough to say hello to you but too shy for anything else.

Karisa Blake wrote 10 years ago:

. Great post Sarah! My favorite is 'Oh My Lady Gaga'!!!

Katie wrote 10 years ago:

Laugh out load post, "oh my Lady Gaga" is the best one, I can sympathise with "You're tall"! It's amazing how every country has it's own little quirks when using the English language, I came across a whole array of intensely irritating and frequently repeated phrases around South East Asia.

Sarah wrote 10 years ago:

I cannot believe "oh my Lady Gaga"! Part of me loves it as a sign of how creative you can be with English whether you are a native or non-native speaker, and part of me cringes at the thought... I don't know which part is winning.

Sophie wrote 10 years ago:

Haha hilarious Sarah… Didn't know you were a grammar freak though… I'm glad you survived with us :-)

Noel wrote 10 years ago:

Those are great, thanks for sharing these funny comments, loved it!

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