Taxicab Mandarin: How to Navigate Your Way through China

The goal of this article would be to provide some very basic Mandarin to be used in taxis by people who don’t speak Mandarin, however, “Taxicab Mandarin” is also an informal level of Chinese language acquisition, e.g. I speak enough Mandarin to tell the taxi driver where to go; hence, the taxicab element. Meanwhile, this level of “fluency” translates across other walks of life. Sometimes, given the propensity of 7-Elevens in Taiwan* and the amount of time I spend in them, I think it should be called “Convenience Store Mandarin”.

* With over 2,700 stores, Taiwan has the highest density of 7-Elevens in the world.

Photo via Wikimedia

Hold on tight and prepare for the worst

Taxicab Mandarin is the lowest functional level of spoken Chinese; just a step above being mute. You won’t be participating in any discussions about politics, but you’ll get from point A to point B with varying degrees of ease and/or ephemeral frustration.

Now, contrary to the opening sentence, the number one rule of traveling in a Mandarin-speaking country is, perversely, speak English whenever possible. Far and away the best use of Taxicab Mandarin is to not use it at all.

Where transportation is concerned, your best plan of action is to have your destination written in legible Chinese. Hotel front desk clerks are invariably happy to help, if, of course, they speak English and/or know your destination.

The point is, you should visit the fool-proof option (get it in writing) before reaching for your Taxicab Mandarin. That’s just common sense. Additionally, if you have a chance to get familiar with some traffic-related Chinese characters, you’ll be able to spot the difference between an address and a general description of a business, which might do you some good. But please, read on.

There was a time before the shared economy

Ten years ago, before the ubiquitous presence of mobile technology and transportation services such as Uber and Lyft, if you were traveling alone in a Mandarin-speaking country, you had to communicate with your taxi driver in Chinese, unless one of two conditions were met:

(A) You had the address of your destination in writing; or (B) by some miracle, the driver spoke English.

Therefore, at one point in time, Taxicab Mandarin was a necessity. Today, not so much.

By far the best travel advice I’ve ever been given, and hence, now happy to pass along, is: Take the business card of every place you visit whenever possible. (Moreover, as a side note, also gracefully accept any business card offered to you by an acquaintance or associate; it’s just polite.) If a joint doesn’t have one on display, ask. Actually, anything – a take-out menu, a promo flyer – with an address is acceptable.

The business card advice contains two obvious points on the surface. One: you have a paper trail; a memento, if you prefer. Two: if you ever want to go back, you’ve got the address. Now, the true “hidden” benefit of the card: If you happen to be traveling in a foreign country and you don’t speak a word of the language, business cards are your ticket around town.

Photo via Wikimedia

Therefore, business cards are among my most prized possessions. Nowadays, because I have a cell phone plan with unlimited wireless, I can pull up the address on Google Maps and show it to the driver. Not everybody is going to have that luxury, and in fact, from my encounters with short-term travelers in Asia, their lack of mobile Internet access is an albatross. (Another side note: do yourself a favor and get a SIM card with unlimited mobile data. You’ll thank me later.)  At any rate, I still take business cards no matter where I go, and I use them with taxi drivers whenever possible.

If, and/or when you have to speak Chinese, here’s what you need to know*:

* Please note: the pronunciations in parenthesis are the author’s informal creations and by no means completely reliable, mostly due to the tonal nature of Mandarin.

The driver is going to ask:

Nǐ qù nǎlǐ? (knee-choo nah-lee) – Where do you want to go?

The implied condition can be anticipated; just listen for: nǎlǐ? (nah-lee) – Where?

Now, I recommend using intersections to navigate; and here’s why: Chinese addresses are actually quite logical, but, for example, in Taiwan, the typical address can be as complicated as:

Fuxing South Road, Section 2, Lane 42, Alley 13, No. 5

Go ahead and try and say it out loud:

Fùxīng nánlù èr duàn 42 xiàng 13 hútòng 5 hào (foo-shing naan-loo er-duan…)

Wait! Do you know your numbers? Can you say “42” in Chinese? Probably not.

That’s far too much Chinese to be spitting at a taxi driver. He’s gonna say, “Huh?” and you’re likely to get flustered the first three or four times he says “Huh?” when you repeat it. Sometimes, if I know where I want to go, I simply say: Yizhí zǒu (eee-zeh zoh) – Just go straight. And from there, I’ll navigate from the back seat:

Photo via Flickr

Turn right here – Zhèlǐ yòu zhuǎn (zel-lee yoh dooan)

Turn left here – Zhèlǐ zǒu zhuǎn (zel-lee zoh dooan)

After each command, the driver will respond: Zhèlǐ? (zel-lee) – Here? and I’m going to say: dui (doy) – Yes, here.

Stop here – Tíng zài zhèlǐ

Again, the driver will hit me with a confirmation. Again, I say: dui (doy) or zhèlǐ (zel-lee).

The beneficial use of intersections cannot be overstated. I’m telling you this from 10 years of experience in Asia. It works. Now, it should go without saying that before you go somewhere you look at a map. Since I know that my hypothetical destination on Fuxing South Road is very near the major intersection of Heping East Road, I need the following short phrase:

Fuxing South Road/Heping East Road intersection:

Fúxìng nánlù, hépíng dōng lùkǒu (foo-shing naan loo, heh-ping dong loo-koh)

Let’s look at the vocabulary. Street names are negligible and generally easy to say and the majority of Asian cities have English signage in major destinations. In order to achieve Taxicab Mandarin, you need the absolute bare minimum of vocabulary, including but not limited to:

Right, left, right side, left side, forward, reverse, in front, behind, intersection, road,street, section, lane, alley, number, stop here, stop at the next intersection, a little bit further, turn here, turn right at the next intersection, turn left at the next intersection, behind, turn around…and, I think we’re heading in the wrong direction.

Or you could just have your destination in writing and save everybody a lot of heartache. Ditto Internet access.