A taxi or actually any meeting with a Chinese stranger. If you can navigate with some Chinese there are a few questions that somehow all Chinese never miss asking. Questions that any foreigner who settled in China heard for about 1.3 billion times.
汉语说得不错 / 汉语说得很好
(hanyu shuo de bucuo/hanyu shuo de henhao = You speak very good Chinese!): It is enough that you say ‘ni hao’, or ‘xie xie’ and you will get people impressed. Actually you might even sneeze or cough in a local style and already earn this compliment. Once Chinese spot a foreigner speaking a word of Chinese they will show some appreciation, and open a door for a longer conversation. The frustrating point here is that no matter if you speak one word or a whole encyclopedia of Chinese, if you have studied for a day or for a decade, you will still get the same compliment. This is not a tough crowd apparently…
(lai ji nian le – How many years have you been here?): What is surprising here is not the content of the question, but the fact that Chinese ask it always in this same short format. Sometimes it might come with no prior communication, just somebody stepping up and pulling out this question quickly. The catch here is that all Chinese assume that you began studying Chinese after arriving to China, which is true only in some cases. Someone who had studied for years in his native country and then came to China for a short time will always make the Chinese face completely dazzled, asking ‘but how come you speak so good?!’ ‘Well, isn’t it possible that I didn’t come here with zero knowledge, isn’t it?!!!’ Some of us laowais had to go over this routine for way too many times.
来自哪里 / 什么国家?
(laizi nail/shenme guojia? = Where (which country) do you come from?): This one is a quite simple and easy deal, but it never fails to come. After receiving this small ethnic detail further comparisons can be developed.
(Zhongguo hao haishi ni guojia hao = China is better or your home country is?): The patriotic sentiments and the western aspirations are both present in this question. The Chinese person in front of you is divided at this moment by a desire to hear about a promised land with high salaries and C-cup girls, and by some pride of the Chinese civilisation and the acknowledgement that a foreigner might appreciate its depth. Not an easy one to answer; ‘Well, China is good enough, but I don’t really live the painstaking Chinese life here, do I?’
(xihuan zhongguo = Do you like China): Actually this question can often come before the one above. And this one is quite easy to answer, isn’t it? Otherwise you weren’t be entering this website.
(ni yigeren ma? = Are you alone?): This is less asked when you are studying or working in a laowai-rich environment, but when you travel by yourself to more remote locations, locals cannot help but wonder how come you are going solo. When you are a woman it is likely you will hear this even more… This question asks whether one is currently travelling alone, but it expresses curiosity in one’s marital state (and also subtle criticism/impression of one’s boldness), which is expected to be indicated in your answer. Be patient towards this semi-nosiness, and don’t let it beat your independent soul! (Thanks to Verena La Mela for this contribution).
(xuesheng haishi gongzuo = A student or working?): More can be studied about this question and the motives behind it, but it probably has to do with the attempt to recognise whether the laowai is a successful businessman/woman who is utilising the Chinese market’s potential or a diligent student that came to absorb Chinese education. The first is more of an exploiter and second is an admirer, or is it the other way around?