Friday 28 March 2014

Westerners can level playing field by learning Mandarin

By Jane Peterson, Published The Straits Times, 27 Mar 2014

AS I watched Mrs Michelle Obama struggle to paint a single Chinese character, I am grateful my Anglo-American daughter already knows thousands of them. At 23, Sarah is proficient in Mandarin. And that opens doors. In three years, if all exams go well, she will qualify as a full-fledged solicitor in Hong Kong. With a Western mindset, she will meet the Chinese on their turf, using their mother tongue.

Sarah's China dream started with a Disney movie - Mulan. At age 10, she started spending summers at Sen Lin Hu, a Chinese immersion camp in Minnesota, eventually reading Chinese and Japanese at Cambridge and working summers in China.

Sarah is not the only one. A growing number of 20-something Westerners - with functional Mandarin - already work in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Thousands more will follow in their footsteps, including some of the 20,000 Americans studying in China this year alone. American Jim Rogers made headlines when he moved to Singapore and enrolled his Mandarin-speaking daughters in local schools. But he was not exceptional either. Even in Minneapolis, Minnesota - in the middle of America - my young niece and nephew attend a Minnesota-funded Chinese immersion school that begins in kindergarten.

While the world anxiously waits for these Mandarin speakers to mature - to become the West's diplomatic leaders of tomorrow - what about today? Actually, the only Mandarin-speaking Western head of state was forced out of office last year: Mr Kevin Rudd, Australia's former prime minister.

Mr Rudd's defeat was a much bigger loss for East-West relations than most people realise. He's now absent from high-power summits, including this week's Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, where Presidents Obama and Xi "conversed" with each other through interpreters.

Despite his loss of power, Mr Rudd remains a superstar in China. He counts some 800,000 followers in his two social media accounts. The former prime minister is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard, pondering the East-West diplomatic relationship, but he also travels extensively.

His appeal among Chinese students is obvious. He peppers speeches with Mandarin, waxing eloquent about the China dream of prosperity and national rejuvenation, and chastising the West for not giving China enough respect. When answering questions at the LKY School of Public Policy, he eagerly launches into seemingly flawless Mandarin.

LKY School administrator Wang Tong, who supervises Chinese students through a special Mandarin programme, follows Mr Rudd with enthusiasm on She tells me his Mandarin is better than that of Singaporean or Hong Kong Chinese. She applauds him for introducing himself as Laolu, which is rather like saying, "Hi, I'm Uncle Rudd."

"He knows all about China and our way to communicate - zhong guo tong," Ms Wang says.

Mr Zheng Wei, a 30-year-old master's student from Beijing, agrees. He says Mr Rudd is known by all middle-class Chinese, thanks to massive exposure on Chinese television. Other known leaders - Mr Barack Obama, Mr Vladimir Putin, Mr George W. Bush and Mr Tony Blair - don't have the same affinity with China, according to Mr Zheng.

"When Mr Rudd speaks Chinese, we feel respected and listened to," he says. "China is more comfortable with him and he is more comfortable with China."

Mr Rudd believes that knowing Mandarin will be "extremely important" in the future. "To say English will be the universal language forever is questionable," he warns.

And he's right. The world moves fast. Just 100 years ago, he reminds me, French was the reigning diplomatic language, and before that, Latin. LKY dean Kishore Mahbubani seconds that. He is well known for pushing the West to ramp up their China skills. "The big trouble in the West," he says, "is that knowledge of Asia is amazingly bad."

Certainly Western foreign offices already have some competent Mandarin speakers in their ranks. Still, in my homeland, the current US ambassador does not speak Mandarin, nor did his predecessor. Behind them, US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman spoke conversational Mandarin, but left the post to run in the last presidential election. He has been quoted as saying he is "ready, willing and prepared" to run again.

Mr Huntsman and Mr Rudd are Western politicians to watch. Even out of office, both can still put some soft diplomacy points on the board for the West. So too can a growing number of Western professionals who are adept at Mandarin.

Westerners in China who cannot speak Mandarin are being squeezed out. Sarah tells me it's very difficult to land a job in Hong Kong if you don't speak Chinese, and virtually impossible when looking in law or finance.

"I would not have received a training contract from a UK law firm in Hong Kong without Mandarin," she tells me, adding that the oral and written assessments demand a knowledge of complex commercial terms.

In Sarah's mind, Westerners can only succeed in Mandarin if they have what it takes: first, persistence to practise characters over and over and over; and second, a good ear to imitate tones accurately.

"I loved my Chinese studies course at Cambridge - 20 of us began, 17 finished," she says. "With so many Chinese speaking good English, Westerners who know Chinese will level the playing field and keep power balanced. We will see things from a different perspective. It will mean more opportunity for cooperation."

The writer is a freelance journalist and communications consultant in Singapore

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