When Marvin Ho co-founded a Chinese language school in Taiwan in 1957, his only students were a handful of Western missionaries. Five decades later, it’s a different story. Ho’s classrooms are packed with scores of people clamouring to learn what they believe is the next global language: Mandarin Chinese.China, having traded socialism for capitalism, is emerging as an economic power, perhaps the only one that could rival U.S. dominance in the 21st century. For a new generation of students, business people and even artists, the land of opportunity now lies to the East, not the West. Drawn to its promise, many are seeking ways to navigate the often rough-and-tumble Wild West atmosphere of working in China. The clearest barometer of this trend is a booming appetite for learning Chinese.
Worldwide, about 40 million people are learning Mandarin, China’s official spoken language and its most common dialect. Nearly 100,000 foreigners went to China to study Mandarin in 2006, more than twice the number five years earlier.
“In my generation, the U.S. was the first choice,” said Ho, whose Taipei Language Institute now boasts 2,400 students at 16 branches, nine of them in mainland China itself. This generation “thinks their future is in China. Why bother going to the U.S.? My friends encourage their children to go to China.”
The rise of the Middle Kingdom has clear parallels with America in the last century, when it became a magnet for people from around the world, said James McGregor, author of the bestselling book, “One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China.”
“This is a continental-sized economy being built from scratch,” he said. “Everyone used to go to America because it was the global happening place. Now this is the global happening place.”
McGregor, a former journalist who runs a business consulting firm in Beijing, advises those who want to head to China to bring an open mind, a sense of adventure and an appreciation for the absurd.
The other key to making it? Solid language skills.
“If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you need to sink into the culture,” he said. “Any 20-year-old American thinking of doing business in China one day and not thinking of learning Mandarin is not thinking.”
America has been infected by China fever. At U.S. colleges, the number of students studying Mandarin jumped 51 per cent between 2002 and 2006 to 51,600, according to a Modern Language Association survey. The increase is significant, although many more students – 800,000 – still study Spanish.
Last year, more than 3,000 high school students took an Advanced Placement exam for Chinese language offered for the first time. And some 500 U.S. high schools, junior high schools and elementary schools offered Mandarin, nearly double the number in 2004, says Shuhan Wang, executive director of Chinese Language Initiatives for the Asia Society.
Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah and Indiana are the states pursuing Mandarin instruction most aggressively, a sign of how seriously China’s economic and political rise is being taken, she said.
It’s a message that 26-year-old musician Skot Suyama from Seattle has taken to heart.
Suyama, whose clean-cut boyish looks hint at his mixed heritage – half Swedish, half Japanese – has spent the last several years in Hong Kong and Taiwan, creating a mix of hip-hop, pop and grunge music. His skills are in demand, because there are fewer people in the region trained in creating and producing music than in the U.S.
With only rudimentary Chinese, he penned the lyrics for “Duibuqi, Xiexie” (Sorry, Thank you) a few years ago, which became a big hit for Hong Kong pop singer Eason Chan in mainland China and elsewhere. However, Suyama has held off diving headlong into the Chinese music scene in part because laws protecting music copyright and guaranteeing royalties are simply not enforced.
“Musically, everything in China is wide open. ‘Duibuqi’ was huge, but I didn’t get any royalties from it (in mainland China). Only in Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong,” he said.
For now, he is focusing on improving his Chinese. He and his Vietnamese girlfriend, Tran Ngoc Binh, spend three hours a day in a class of nine students at the Taipei Language Institute. Their classmates are from Australia, Belgium, France and Austria.
As their teacher goes over the grammar lesson for the day, they painstakingly repeat her phrases, careful to enunciate the rising and falling tones that make Mandarin so difficult. Suyama believes the payoff will be worth the pain.
“If I could go to the mainland now, I could make money,” he said. “Right now in China, there’s people who don’t know the price of a song. You could find someone to pay you $50,000 to write a song. If you’ve made a name for yourself, you can make it big there.”
It’s something that entrepreneur Joseph Green, 36, saw coming a decade ago, when he first moved to Taiwan to study Mandarin after getting an MBA in 1997.
A native of Houston whose heavy southern drawl disappears when he speaks rapid-fire Mandarin, Green said he feels lucky that he concentrated on Chinese when “China wasn’t even on the map.” Now, his friends and family congratulate him on being farsighted.
Green, who has worked in China and Taiwan, launched an Internet website (www.chinglish.com) with a Dutch friend a couple years ago that seeks to make English-Chinese communication easier.
Chinese “won’t supersede English but it’s so big that it stands a chance of being integrated into the mainstream in the way that English is,” predicts Green, who is now pursing advanced Mandarin at the elite National Taiwan University. “Even the normal person in Texas is saying, ‘Holy cow. This is it. I’ve got to learn Chinese.”‘
Nowhere has interest in Chinese been stronger than among other Asians, as China’s rapid ascension reshapes the priorities of its neighbours. Recent Gallup surveys in 13 Asian countries showed some 40 per cent expect China to replace the U.S. as the leading superpower within the next 50 years.
Four of the top five nations that sent students to China for language study were Asian – South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam respectively. The United States, which ranked third, was the only Western country in that group.
In neighbouring Taiwan, where the number of Mandarin students has doubled to around 11,000 over the past decade, about 60 per cent of the students are Asian. Most come from Japan and Korea, though growing numbers are from Southeast Asia. The rest are split between America and Europe.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, if Asians wanted to study abroad, they would go to the U.S or Europe,” said Chung-Tien Chou, director of National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center, the largest language school in Taiwan. “Now that has changed. More young people in Asia don’t only look to the Western countries anymore but they look to Asian countries as options.”
China has encouraged Mandarin study through its Confucius Institutes, designed to promote Chinese culture and language. Patterned after Germany’s Goethe-Institut or France’s Alliance Francaise, more than 100 Confucius Institutes are operating, some two dozen in the United States.
Demand for Mandarin, mostly from business-focused clients, has meant boom times for language schools like Ho’s Taipei Language Institute. Clients include corporate customers, such as Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Dutch bank and insurance company ING, and HSBC Holdings PLC, Europe’s largest bank.
“Mainland China has become so strong so everything has changed,” said Kentaro Kawauchi, 27, a student at Ho’s school. His employer, Japanese trading company Marubeni Corp., is paying for him and more than a dozen other colleagues to learn Mandarin full-time. “My company needs me to learn Chinese.”
But the language alone only goes so far without an understanding of Chinese culture and its distinct business style – which is why Adam Sobieski has gone out of his way to be culturally sensitive.
The 30-year-old self-described “farm boy from Minnesota” arrived in the northeastern city of Dalian in 2004 to set up an office for an American grain trading company.
He tried to talk and even dress like local businessmen. He took business calls on weekends, discovering there is little separation between personal and business life in China.
He also began drinking baijiu, a highly alcoholic spirit distilled from grain, as part of the near-obligatory bonding ritual that business deals required – until it started affecting his health.
“When I first started, I thought I had to do it. I thought I would offend them otherwise,” he said. “But the most important thing is your health. People die over there because they’re drinking during business lunches. That’s a big cultural difference that’s very hard to adapt to.”
Ultimately, Sobieski said he found the key to business success was his ability to develop relationships.
“In China, the rule of law is very weak. It’s the rule of man,” he said. “If you can use language skills to develop relationships, or ‘guanxi,’ it’s going to help you in the long run. Once you have a problem, you can’t rely on the law. You have to find your friends, people who have connections who can help you.”
Sobieski, whose mastery of Chinese won him first place at an annual language competition last December, said his ability to speak the language set the right tone for doing business, conveyed respect and humanized the relationship.
“Most foreigners who go there are pretty clueless as to what the reality is in China,” he said. “If they don’t have language ability, they don’t have the tools to find out what the truth is.”
-with a report from CP