在 (zài) for locations
The Chinese character 在 is one of those characters that seem to be useful in every other sentence. This means it has a variety of functions. For example, 健在(Jiànzài) means ‘healthy and still alive’; 在线 (Zàixiàn) means ‘online’; it can even be used as the Chinese version of present continuous tense to show an action is being completed.
While 在 has various uses which might be explored in the future, this article is going to focus on its function regarding locations.
At its core, 在 is used to express one’s existence in a location. Let’s use the sentence ‘我在商场’ (Wǒ zài shāngchǎng). The sentence means ‘I am at the mall’. It shows that you are currently present in the mall. At this level, it works like prepositions ‘at’ and ‘in’: they reflect you are at that location, but in a large place like the mall, that’s not particularly specific. Your friend would have a fit if you told him that and expected him to know where to meet up.
However, 在 can also be used with other characters to relay a location relative to other objects/places. For example, you could tweak the sentence we were using just now to say ‘我在商场里’ (Wǒ zài shāngchǎng lǐ) or ‘I am inside the mall’. This would eliminate the outer areas of the mall. It’s better, but to your friend, that would still take a long search
Inside the mall, you could offer statements of where you are relative to the floors. If you’re in a mall with a ground floor, first floor and a basement level, you could say ‘我在楼上’ (Wǒ zài lóushàng) or ‘I am upstairs’ to show you are above ground if relative to ground level; you could also say ‘I am underground’ with ‘我在楼下’ (Wǒ zài lóuxià).
Now, suppose you were at the Apple Store, which spans the entire first floor of the mall, looking at the new iPhone. What could you say? The sentence ‘我在楼上看新的苹果电话’ (Wǒ zài lóu shàng kàn xīn de píngguǒ diànhuà), which translates as ‘I am upstairs looking at the new iPhone’. This combines the function of 在 to show locations and 在 to show current actions. Congratulations! Your friend can finally find you!
Having a firm grasp of the uses of 在 will make life in a Mandarin-speaking environment much easier. Instead of your friend looking for you all over the mall, he can come straight to the Apple Store to find you.