Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The learning Chinese craze

Lots of people these days seem to cherish this vain, media-inspired hope that they will crack world's largest market once they've mastered Chinese. Warning: I am about to burst your bubble a bit. To get to the level when your Mandarin is credible and functional for business will take at least 4-5 years of sustained daily effort, given you're linguistically inclined. On top of that, to be accepted and trusted by your Chinese partners, you need to be well versed in the culture and ways that are radically different from your own. The Chinese are relationship-oriented even in business, they need to know you personally well enough before they embark on doing business with you. In real life, outside fad-peddling magazine articles, most trade with China is done by Overseas Chinese.

The chances that sending your offspring to a weekly Chinese lesson will land him/her a high-rolling job by the time they finish university are close to the odds of getting struck by lightning. Besides, by then, the flavour of the year will be Turkey, or Peru, or Nigeria, definitely someplace you have never even thought about,  so all your investment and the best years of your child's life will have been wasted.

I remember back in the 80s, when Japan was all craze, everyone was flipping through their kanji flashcards and drag their children to Japanese classes. Then the bubble burst and two "lost decades" ensued, with next to none Japan-related jobs on the market, save teaching English positions, in a profoundly xenophobic society still as impenetrable to foreigners as ever. Only those who went through all the trouble of learning the language and culture for love of Japan eventually did well. The rest got retrenched back into the mobile work force of post-industrial capitalism, hapless victims of media fads.

My advice would be to learn Chinese only if you or your progeny are genuinely interested in the people and the culture. That way you are completely guaranteed against any whims of the market, and if you are also business-minded, you may just struck that mother-lode with China. Otherwise, mind your own business, literally and figuratively, and if you're good enough, the Chinese come and knock on your door themselves.

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