5 Weird Things to Get Used to While Learning Mandarin Chinese

I’m a software developer and product manager living and working in Shanghai. I work in a Chinese company and speak Chinese every day, but I am by no means a professional teacher. I just like learning and writing, and I wanted to point out a couple really strange concepts to get used to when learning Mandarin.

I also know that personally these all took me a while to grasp, so I hope that if you read these earlier in your studies, they might not be as confusing when you learn about them later.

1. Talking about 面子 (face)

If you haven’t been her you might now about the concept of face. In english we also have this concept (you may have heard the term “saving face”) which is a reference to a similar concept.

Basically face is your social reputation among your friends, coworkers, and family. In China this is mentioned calculated, and considered much more than in America. There’s a couple terms around face that are really weird to get used to: “giving face”, “losing face,” “protecting face”, “fighting face”.

2. Everything has a direction 起来 下来 上来 掉

This will also be detailed in a later post. But this is a really strange one for english speakers. Basically this is the english concept of “stand up” but expanded to include nearly all verbs. You would “cook out (做出来)” a loaf of bread. and the night sky will “darken down” (黑下来). You also “delete off (删掉)” unwanted information and “pass through” an exam (考进去).

3. Thinking and missing 想 (xiang)

There’s one word for “want”, “think”, and “miss”. I feel like this is really insightful somehow.

4. You have a problem with me? 问题 (wen’ti)

The word in chinese for question also means problem. It’s really hard to say “does anybody have any questions” with my proposal because you could be also asking them if theres any glaring holes or things they want to shoot down

5. You say “play” all the time. 玩

In Chinese the word “play” is used all the time — for example: “Did you have a good time playing at the beach this weekend?” or “I’ll be going on vacation next month to play with my parents” to an english speaker this feels weird, childish, or even mildly sexual, but in the Chinese language it really just means “enjoy yourself”

I hope you enjoyed reading,

Follow me for more about Mandarin Chinese, software, and life in Shanghai.


Product Manager + Software Developer. Interested in Travel, Culture, and the Internet.