Unfortunately the answer all too often is “Ting bu dong.” (I don’t understand)
But then we must always remember, this is their country, not ours. Just as we expect the whole world to speak English within 10 minutes of their arriving in the US, the Chinese would be justified to expect foreigners to speak their language. Of course, there is a double standard – and one that works in foreigners favor: the Chinese do not expect foreigners to speak their language – not even a little bit. Hence you can and should expect to receive copious praise for speaking even more than just a few words of Chinese. Sometimes all it takes is a “Ni hao” and “Xie xie” to get gushing praise and flattery for your mastery of the language.
By virtue of its tonal nature and the use of characters in lieu of a phonetic alphabet (or even a semi-phonetic one like English), many foreigners take one look at the Chinese language and back away in terror. Unlike French or Spanish where even a glance at a textbook provides a wealth of comforting cognates, Chinese appears to present an insurmountable wall – longer, higher, and more formidable than the one protecting the Middle Kingdom for the last 2000 years.
Truth be told, however, Chinese is NOT nearly as difficult to study as common wisdom believes. The problem, mostly, is three-fold. Predictably, mastering the characters is a daunting challenge (Jesuit missionary and linguist Matteo Ricci called studying Classical Chinese writing “semi-martyrdom”). Getting a hold on the tones is the second. The final challenge is the onslaught of vocabulary, virtually non of which is a predictable cognate. For the cognates which do exist (Shafa – sofa, Shalong – Salon， Deshi – Taxi, Qiaokeli – Chocolate, etc), the modern Mandarin pronunciations are often quite different from English. Part of the problem is these loan words entered Chinese via Shanghainese or Cantonese – where the cognate sounds much more like its English equivalent.
Be of faith and good cheer dear comrades – both traveling and resident – or intending to be resident. None of these three are insurmountable obstacles.
1. The writing system actually has a method to the madness. Once you master the radicals (the 200 or so building blocks of characters) you can start to predict pronunciations and readings and group characters and ideas in your mind. Second, as you study you will begin to read characters as groups rather than just one at a time, thus increasing your speed. Hence you will come to see 巧克力 as chocolate instead of 巧 Qiao 克 Ke 力 Li (huh?).
2. The tones are more formidable. Mastery of the tones takes dilligence from Day One in studying the language. Whatever you do, DO NOT SLACK OFF ON THE TONES. I did and have been paying for it ever since. It is quite humiliating that I consistently say “feed pigs” (喂猪) when I am trying to say something is of paramount importance (为主). The only difference is a matter of tone. But for those students of the language who assiduously pay attention to tones from the beginning of their study, it is not impossible. However, if you are lazy with the tones in the beginning and rely on context to get you by (as I have), you will forever sound, shall we say, a little odd.
3. As for the sea of vocabulary, just remember that those thousands of students coming to the US for university or graduate school every year had to learn hundreds and hundreds of arcane vocabulary words for their GREs. The least we can do is learn the basics of Chinese.
In China you will find a ready audience of people with whom to practice. Beijing Taxi drivers in particular are often very conversational and will gladly chat you up while stuck in interminable traffic jams.
Language is a topic to which we will turn many times. But for now, let us just say that a little bit can and does go a long way. Learn the basics and it will open up a whole new world of experiences in China.
Safe travels comrades!