How to speak Chinese better than Ruben Terlou
If you have seen the great documentary series ‘Langs de oevers van de Yangtze’, I believe you must have been impressed by Ruben Terlou’s Chinese language and communication skills. And you may have noticed that he could not only express himself clearly, but also be socially very approachable to his interviewees. It seems everyone feels comfortable to talk to him, easily opens up to him about their personal stories, or even becomes a friend with him.
Now you may wonder what’s the secret behind mastering this mysterious language and crossing the cultural barrier like Ruben did. In this article I will give you some useful tips and help you use Chinese in the most natural and efficient way.
As this year you probably have seen the new series too, ‘Door het hart van China’（English version can be purchased on DVD), which just came out a few months ago. Before Ruben went back to film in China again, I was very happy to help him with his research, discuss Chinese culture and history with him, and help him to improve his Chinese language skills. And I really like the outcome of these new series. So I will use parts from these episodes as examples, in order to show you how to speak Chinese as well as Ruben, or maybe even better!
Let’s first have a look at episode 1 ‘Mijnen en Woestijnen’ and see how you can greet a new Chinese friend you’ve just met:
In this episode, Ruben was brought to the house of the guide and introduced to his wife:
Ruben:“Ei, nínhǎo!” (Hi, hello! 诶，您好!)
Guide: “Zhè shì wǒ fūrén, lǎopo.” (This is my wife <formal>, wife <informal>. 这是我夫人，老婆。)
Wife:“Nínhǎo, jìn wū ba.” (Hello, come in the house. 您好，进屋吧。)
Ruben:“Hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ.” (Nice to meet you. 很高兴认识你。)
Ruben:“Nǐ jiā?” (Your house? 你家?)
Guide:“En.” (Yeah. 嗯。)
Ruben:“Shì ba?” (Yes? 是吧?)
Guide:“Shì.” (Yes. 是。)
In this dialogue, Ruben used the most standard way to greet the lady ‘hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ’ (nice to meet you). I think this is what everyone learns from their first Chinese textbook or lesson.
However, if you meet a random Chinese person, this expression is rarely used in daily life, because it sounds a bit too formal and distant. So what do Chinese people usually say?
In this case, since you’re visiting someone’s house, you can simply give some compliments, such as:
“Nínhǎo, nín jiā fángzi hǎo dà a!” (Hello, wow, your house is so big! 您好，您家房子好大啊!)
But of course the compliment should be realistic, otherwise it may sound insincere. In the video, we can see that this is a farmer’s house, not necessarily with a special design or a very tidy and beautiful front yard (nice chickens running around though:)). That’s why I would use the word ‘dà’ (big 大) here as a compliment, instead of ‘gānjìng’ (clean 干净), ‘piàoliang’ (beautiful 漂亮), or ‘wēnxīn’ (cosy 温馨).
And the expression ‘hǎo…a’ (好…啊) means ‘so…!’, in which ‘hǎo’ is like ‘hěn’ (very, so 很) but used more often in speaking language, and the particle ‘a’ (啊) expresses a tone of being surprised in a positive way.
If you don’t really feel like giving a compliment or trying to please the owner, you can also say:
“Nínhǎo，dǎrǎo nín le a. Xièxie nín ràng wǒmen lái nín jiā pāishè.” (Hello, (sorry) to disturb you. Thank you for letting us film in your house. 您好，打扰您了啊。谢谢您让我们来您家拍摄。)
Here, ‘dǎrǎo nín le’ (打扰您了) is used when you feel sorry to disturb others at their place or when someone is busy with other things at the moment. The particle ‘a’ (啊) has a different function here: it’s used to soften the tone. Here, ‘duìbuqǐ’ (sorry 对不起) is not needed, because it may also sound too stiff, and usually ‘duìbuqǐ’ is used more often when you feel you did something wrong.
Besides the situation in the film, let’s also look at other occasions where you can greet a stranger naturally:
Occasion 1: meeting a friend’s friend
“Tīngshuō nǐ zài Déguó dúshū a?” (I heard that you are studying in Germany? 听说你在德国读书啊?)
“Nǐmen zěnme rènshi de a?” (How did you get to know each other? 你们怎么认识的啊?)
Occasion 2: meeting a colleague at your new workplace
“Nínhǎo, wǒ jiào Měiyí, wǒ gāng lái, yǒu shénme bù dǒng de hái děi máfan nín le.” (Hello, I’m Meiyi. I’ve just arrived <I’m new here>, if there’s anything I don’t know, I may have to bother you. 您好，我叫美怡，我刚来，有什么不懂的还得麻烦您了。)
Occasion 3: at a formal or business meeting
“Xìnghuì xìnghuì!” (Nice to meet you <I feel lucky to meet you>! 幸会幸会!)
“Jiǔ yǎng dà míng!” (I’ve heard about you a long time ago <I have been admiring you for a long time>! 久仰大名!)
Occasion 4: meeting a friend of your boyfriend/girlfriend
“Zǎo jiù tīng XX shuō qǐ guò nǐ, jīntiān zhōngyú jiànmiàn le.” (I’ve heard about you from XX a long time ago. Today we finally meet. 早就听XX说起过你, 今天终于见面了。)
“Wǒ cháng tīng XX kuā nǐ.” (I often hear XX giving you compliments. 我常听XX夸你。)
So, in Chinese, where to say what is very context dependent. Usually people use information they already know or their own prediction about this new friend/stranger as the start of a conversation, in order to shorten the social distance and make the other person feel comfortable from the beginning. Actually, there is no standard way to greet someone. You’ll have to look at the situation and choose the right words accordingly.
I hope these tips can help you to speak Chinese more like a native. But don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Chinese people are always happy to hear you speak their mother tongue! 🙂