You’re fresh off the boat, but you’ve got great ideas and you’re here in China to turn your dreams into reality. A worthy goal, but an obstacle coarse of strange language, unfamiliar culture, and newness lays in front of you.
Fortunately in this day and age of technology, most of those barriers have been reduced to mere annoyances. You can be effective without knowing a word of Mandarin. It’s better if you do, but since learning language takes time here are some tools to get you by in the meantime:
一．Google Chrome – Autotranslate FTW
Not only is this an awesome free browser from Google, but it has one killer feature that makes it an invaluable tool: inline auto-translate of webpages based on the detected language. That’s right. If you surf to taobao.com or a supplier website that is in Mandarin, it will automatically translate it to English (or any language of your choice!)
二． VPN or SSH Tunnel FTW
The great firewall of China gets a lot of hype, but you don’t have to be some sort of ultra hacker to get around it. All you need is some sort of proxy and you’re clear. The way this works is simple, and I’ll use twitter.com as an example. If you access Twitter.com from China, it will not load. With a proxy, you have a server located in a non-firewalled country (such as the USA). You ask your proxy server to load Twitter.com and then it passes the page information back to you over an encrypted connection. China doesn’t know what you’re looking at, and to Twitter.com it looks like you’re in the USA. This works for all sorts of sites and is the easiest way to defeat the firewall.
There are tons of VPN providers out there, but strongvpn.com has worked well for me. If you’re going to be here for an extended period of time, its good to have a backup proxy. Sometimes computers go down and if you can’t access your normal internet sites it can be super frustrating.
If you’re a nerd and have a server in the USA with SSH access, you have a free proxy. Simply add the –D ### flag to your ssh command and it will open an encrypted SOCKSv5 tunnel between you and the server you can use as a proxy. Then configure your computer to use that for all traffic.
Example: ssh –D 8080 email@example.com
三． Google Translate
This is an oldie, but a goodie that I use every single day. It has improved greatly over the years and now works pretty well. It definitely does a good job with technical translation, but it is not always a magic bullet. Having language skills to back it up and analyze the results is good.
In particular, the “Read Phonetically” feature allows you to see the pronunciation help (Pinyin). The “Listen” feature allows you to hear how a robot would pronounce the words. If you’re trying to analyze a translation, you can hover over the words and it will show you which ones the correspond to in the source. This is handy because word order can often change.
Google also has a mobile version of the Translate site. This is very useful if you need to translate a text message or something that your phone dictionary just can’t quite handle.
四． Smartphone Dictionary - Pleco or Hanping
Chances are you’ll need to communicate with someone when you’re not in front of your computer. You may not even have wireless access to look up a translation. For those reasons, I would highly recommend purchasing a dictionary app. Make sure it is an offline app, because Internet can be unreliable at times.
Pleco – Available for both Android and iPhone. It has tons of features, multiple dictionaries, and is basically the most widely used Chinese – English dictionary out there. It has lots of cool stuff, including optical character recognition which can use your camera to automatically recognize and translate characters.
Hanping Pro – Android only. Very sleek and nice UI. I liked this dictionary a bit better than Pleco when I had an Android phone. A recent update adds optical character recognition. Both of these apps support text to speech, so you can listen to the pronunciation.
五． 3G SIM Card – China Unicom
You do not need a contract to get internet on your phone, so as soon as you cross the border go immediately to the nearest China Unicom store and get a 3G SIM card. You will need your passport and an unlocked phone. Your US carrier will probably unlock your phone if you tell them you’re going overseas. If not, you can unlock most phones if you’re clever enough.
The way cell service here works is you put money into an account, and you pay a set amount per month for a baseline plan of X Minutes, Y text messages, and Zmb data. If you go over that, you pay based on your additional usage. If you run out of money, just go to the nearest store and add more (you can also add minutes through Taobao, but that’s pro stuff there.)
Pro tip: your VPN provider will also probably offer a PPTP VPN service which you can use on your phone. This will allow you to tweet your heart out and check your email on the go.
六． QQ – How Everyone Communicates
If you plan on being here for a while, get a QQ account. It’s the Chinese version of AIM/MSN/Skype. It’s free and if you put it on your business card people will remark about how China savvy you are (no joke). Almost everyone here uses it, and it is a great way to communicate with people that don’t speak English. With your trusty translation tools at your site, you can accomplish quite a bit through QQ.
七． Taobao – Get Good Prices
Taobao is sometimes called the eBay of the China, but those people are idiots. Taobao is the eBay, Amazon, Digikey, and McMaster of China all rolled into one. You can buy almost anything on Taobao and have it shipped straight to your door (if you’re in China.) Unfortunately everything is in Mandarin, so you’ll need Google Chrome to even get your foot in the door.
It is quite the process to get setup for purchasing on Taobao, so I would recommend getting a friend to buy you things that you find. Using Taobao involves using a China bank account, which further involves all sorts of hoop jumping. Getting that setup is only worth it if you will be here for an extended period of time.
Even if you don’t purchase anything on Taobao, it’s a great way to look up prices. Nobody on Taobao knows if you’re a foreigner or not, so the advertised price is often the ‘real’ price. No need to haggle down from an inflated price here, although there is functionality built into the site for haggling (this cracks me up).
Last, but not least, be aware of scams on Taobao. If a price is too good to be true, it probably is. If you’re not sure, get a chinese friend to look over it. It is a good idea to read the reviews, and only purchase things that others have purchased recently. Taobao will show you how many sales an item has in the last 30 days, and you can sort by that field. Chinese people are often shrewd and great bargain hunters, so there is safety in numbers.
八．Learn Chinese – Chinese Learn Online or Chinapod
Most of these tools are hacks to get around the fundamental problem of not knowing Chinese. Even though it is spoken by billions of people in the world, it is not widely taught in the USA. Don’t be ashamed by not knowing the language, but don’t embrace your ignorance either. Instead, accept it and attempt to better yourself by learning how to listen, speak, read, and write.
There are so many different options for learning Chinese. You could go full immersion classroom, you could get a tutor, you could read a book, or you could listen to a podcast. I recommend the podcast method for busy people. Both chineselearnonline.com and chinesepod are safe bets. Get yourself a flashcard program like Anki too so you don’t just forget everything. Practice makes perfect!
I would highly recommend focusing on speaking and listening in the beginning. Mandarin is very different from English, and the writing system is a big part of the strangeness. Furthermore, in China you will be surrounded by people who can tell you what something says… but only if you have the skills to ask them what it says. This is also a great way to break the ice and I’ve made many new friends by asking random strangers what a sign says.
I’ll probably get flack for this, but do not waste your time learning how to hand-write the characters. Are they beautiful? Without a doubt. Will it be useful to you in day to day life? Not likely, unless you are writing your name in which case people will ooh and aww over you like a toddler taking its first steps.
As you learn to speak Mandarin, you will automatically be learning how to write Mandarin on a computer. One of the most widely used input methods for Chinese is writing pinyin and then picking the characters you want from a set of options. If you can speak it, you can write it using your computer.
九．Bonus Tip: Enjoy yourself
Living in China is the adventure of a lifetime. There will be challenges, and there will be strangeness. Accept it and move on and you’ll be much happier. Go with the flow and try to adapt yourself to this new place. If you try and craft your own version of home here in China, you’ll just get a poor imitation. Instead, try all the wonderful new things you can’t find anywhere else: foods, clothing, tea, language, etc. Enjoy!