With China’s swift rise to prominence on the global stage, the demand for Mandarin language courses and qualified teachers is growing in just about every corner of the world. Many young professionals in the West seem to agree that speaking Mandarin Chinese will be absolutely necessary for their careers in the future, but the Chinese are saying: “Don’t bother!

According to Mr. Yang, founder of learnmandarinnow.com, the demand for English courses in China continues to rise and most young Chinese living in large cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai grew up learning English at school, in college or listening to it often on TV. What most did not have, was the opportunity to practice it:

“It is very common for Chinese parents to encourage their young children to greet foreigners in English. One time I was in an elevator in Guangzhou and a foreigner walked in. There was a lady there holding a child who couldn’t even speak yet, but still she kept telling the baby to wave and say ‘hi’ to the laowai uncle.”

After living in Shanghai for a while, I can’t stop noticing that no matter how long a foreigner has been in China and how good (or how poor) their Chinese is, people will always treat them like they’ve just gotten off the boat. This is not only true in large cities like Shanghai, but for all of China as well.

I have lost count of how many times I was sitting in a restaurant ordering some food (in Chinese) and the waiter insisted in facing my Chinese companion instead of me. At first I thought they were probably not understanding what I was saying, but I always seemed to get exactly what I ordered. Even more peculiar than my restaurant experience, is my baozi (包子) story.

I remember during the beginning of my stay in Shanghai, I used to buy 3 vegetable steamed buns for breakfast every single day. I worked in a foreign company surrounded by other foreigners, so going to the little BaoZi shop was the only real chance I had to speak to some real hardcore Chinese. The problem is that I practically ordered the same everyday and around my fifth time in, the lady began to pack my order as soon as she saw me coming up the road and I went from saying 我要两个菜包 (2 vegetable buns), to just saying 谢谢 (thank you). I eventually solved the problem by always ordering a random number of steamed buns and periodically switching flavors, leaving her with no option but to wait for me to speak my order out.

In most countries people would actually find it disrespectful for a foreigner to approach them speaking any language that is not the local one. But where everybody else sees crisis, the Chinese usually see opportunity; and wherever there is a foreigner, there is opportunity for free English practice.

So if having to deal with an ever growing number of foreigners who are unable to speak their language does not upset the Chinese, then what does? According to Yang, the answer is “criticism”.

“I have met many foreigners in and out of Guangzhou. In general, I think they are nice people, but many seem to enjoy criticizing China or Chinese people. Sure, there are problems in China, but then again there are problems everywhere.” 

If on one hand it is relatively easy to get by without Chinese in China these days, on the other hand it is incredible how much one misses out by not understanding the language. The truth is that Chinese culture and thinking is tightly bound to their language and even tighter to their character system.

I have found that to take the time to learn Chinese and most importantly being able to understand how the Chinese convey their ideas orally, is helpful to develop my own set of negotiation and bargaining skills in this country. Getting things done here or getting someone to do something for you, can be a matter of days or minutes and it all depends on how you ask.