Does anyone really want you speaking Mandarin in the workplace?

Those of us crazy about China understand the importance of learning Mandarin.  We never consider it a “maybe” or “someday” box to check off at our leisure.  Those of us lucky enough to have been seduced by the sheer innocence and mystery of the Heavenly Kingdom before it was overwhelmed by capitalism (thankfully) will remember the thrill of having learned Mandarin. 

But learning Mandarin in one’s home country is only a “so-so” experience.   If only because of the “home” environment we are in.  We only speak Chinese in class.  And even than we have to compete with our classmates in order to do so.   And once class is over, well…..back to our native tongue. 

Chinese overseas have the habit of also speaking to you in your native language.   (Please understand, there is no way a barbarian can ever learn “our language”.)

It is hard to speak to Chinese in America in Mandarin.  By force of habit they already speak English!  One’s ability to speak with a Chinese in Chinese is related to the degree of one’s relationship.  The closer it is, the more likely the conversation will be dominated in Mandarin.

So why are we learning this language?

I’ve already written a few posts on this.  Please remember I’ve have probably 250 posts on various topics already up.  All you guys need to take the time to go back into the archives.  Some of my best work is there.  I find my earlier posts more passionate.  More urgent.  Maybe even better than what I write today…..(I’ll let you decide).

As for me, I learned Mandarin because the numbers simply tilted in China’s favor.

“How can a billion Chinese be wrong”?

Speaking Mandarin helped me get a girlfriend.  And a wife.  Greatly reduced any ability I would have in future of not arguing with the inlaws, and yeah, helped me find work in America.   And was the driving force behind my own business.  After all, when one can break out the Mandarin in a factory with a CEO, isn’t that the epitome of one’s professional success?  Methinks so.

But one must keep this in mind:  frankly speaking, China may not be a great fit for you.  As Japan was not a great fit for myself, China may quite frankly rub one the wrong way.   So above else, I hope before one takes the plunge and decides to learn Mandarin, you will first mingle a bit with the Chinese.  Study the History and Culture.    If even viable, take a trip to China.

Studying Mandarin in College helps sure, but what does it tell you about your like of the culture?

I remember I chased a Japanese girl in University big time.  But what would she have actually taught me about living in Japan?  Having chased her(unsuccessfully) and then having lived in Tokyo, I can tell you “not much”.   Same for China.

The Chinese in America(or Poland, or wherever) will always be “nice”.   The “smile’, etc.  The “charm”.  Than once you are in country the force and charisma of the place hits you like a brick wall.   
 And it’s not always going to be as “orgasmic”, shall we say, as your relationship with your Chinese girlfriend was.   When the culture knocks you down, what will you do?  Feel ill….or get back up with a smile on your face?

I remember when I lived in Shanghai at the turn of the century(sounds cool to write that), I just got tired of taking a taxi home from the office to the apartment every day.  Or the bus(which I frequently used).  One day I decided to take the employee shuttle, deep into the heart of Shanghai, and just get off with everybody else.  They went home.  I just walked around.  I just wanted to explore.  It was interesting. 

I never did that in Japan.   Not once. 

So numbers aside,  you still gotta like the place where its spoken.

But culture aside, what is the point of learning how to use one’s Chinese?

I applied to be a diplomat.  I got knocked out at the final stage.  They never once took my Mandarin or experience into consideration.  Not allowed to, I was told.  I may have told you earlier, the crusty old lady testing me simply looked at my Master’s degree and mentioned I’ be responsible for buying light bulbs.  Very warming personality. 

Or when the CIA recruited me.   “We want you to live in China forever”, basically is what they told me.  And if I’m arrested they would deny all knowledge of me.   All this for $46,000 a year.   A lot of cash, right?   Meanwhile, Haier made me an offer for $48,000 a year!  I turned Haier down and the CIA, probably not comfortable with the fact my wife was a former probationary Party member, blew me off.

So get used to the fact if you learn Mandarin, you will probably use it for a private company. 

And herein lays the rub.  America is too racially sensitive.  It does not try and specifically recruit people with Arabic or Japanese or Russian skills.  It is more interested in your “race”.  The government in your country is most likely different from mine.  It will probably actually value your hard earned “Mandarin skills” more so than my country will.   And certainly more than a private company will. 


Because in today’s world your Mandarin simply isn’t as valued as it would have been twenty years ago.   And it is not for the reason you may think. 

If one is American, you are probably thinking the massive influx of Chinese into America has greatly diminished your marketability, correct?  I would say yeah, that was true at one point, but not anymore.  Over time, though, the news of Chinese (or so it seems) on a nearly  daily basis being arrested for suspected espionage(stealing seeds from a farmers field at 2am) or for being on the take with a supplier have in my view greatly taken the air out of their ability to compete with someone like myself.  I know of some companies that quietly stay away from Chinese within certain positions of the company. 

Rather, the reasons one’s Mandarin in the workplace isn’t as highly valued as one might expect are in my view twofold:

One, the supplier you may be working with in China already has a 小妹妹。 Her written English and emails are all fluent and perfect.  She giggles on the phone and always has that smiley face in her email reply.  And she may even know a little about the business!

Nevermind come the actual conference call that when forced to speak she cannot be understood, stunning everyone that her spoken English isn’t 5% as good as her written emails, and you may be called upon to actually run the meeting in Chinese, just to get answers the company so desperately needs.

Nope…the real reason your Mandarin may not be an advantage in the workplace is your ignorant ass boss doesn’t give a fuck about your ability to bring value to the table.  Simple as that.

Did I mention he(she?) was ignorant?

You see, you are a threat to Their World.  The World you live in, at their leisure.

Yeah, there are jobs out there within the vast boundaries of America that have jobs needing people to speak Mandarin.  But unfortunately in my view they are more jobs filling a unique niche than with any possibility of real advancement.   In effect, you become the company’s “China Guy”. 

If your boss has a real appreciation for his department’s ability to manage Chinese operations, then you may be in luck.  But I doubt he does.  Because more likely than not, your “skills” and “Cultural insight” just aren’t wanted.   Your nuanced and invaluable skill of conducting a meeting in Mandarin is not appreciated.   Will not be appreciated.

You see….it takes the glow off of your boss’s halo.   You know…the halo he himself has probably placed above his head announcing to all within the organization his lone ability to “get the job done” in China! 

Because today one's interaction with China in the workplace is seen as an advantage to one's career.  And you come along and mess it all up!

Yet allow me to give you a more extreme example of why “you” aren’t welcome.   Something I’ve come across a few times in my professional career.   You see, some bosses just aren’t intellectually curious about “why” you learned Mandarin.  They don’t give a fuck.   They don’t care about the Cultural Revolution, and have no idea who Zhou En Lai was, let along Deng Xiaoping.   And at first opportunity they will oh so casually let you know it.

“You aren’t here to give history lessons, ok”?

“And don’t speak Mandarin during meetings.  Only invite people that speak English.”   

(Which, by the way, precludes 90% of anyone useful showing up.  Oh wait, the saleslady in her red dress and cute smile will be there.  She speaks English.)

It could be your boss finds you a threat or nuisance, simply because he was “forced” to hire you.  If so, than you are probably out of luck.  If your boss has already developed the habit of travelling to China on his own, this could harm you as well. 

Learning to travel to a strange and exotic country on one’s own is a very self-empowering effect.  It builds false confidence in one’s ability to get the job done.  In my view, this is actually the worst kind of boss to have. 

Boss quickly discovers a few things when travelling in China.   One, he can binge drink beyond the unapproving glare of his wife.   Two, “Boss” is so enthralled with his newfound ability to “take on China” that he develops an extremely false sense of invulnerability and stops taking his cholesterol dosage.  Three, the luxury of getting a blow job from a girl half his age in his $250 a night hotel room is the most empowering experience of all.  
When is the last time his wife gave him oral sex?   All she wants to do is mention how overweight he is.  She doesn’t want to “touch him”.

Boss is empowered though, you see.  He goes to China so the local China staff there can “kiss the ring” and Tingting the 小姐 whore from the local laowai club can kiss something else.

He thinks himself Zeus and China his Mt Olympus.

China in short becomes your bosses “balm”.  His tonic.  His savior.

You think he wants your know it all ass around?  Speaking Mandarin and showing him up?  Of course not!  To him, your “expertise” is a Wikipedia click away.  And all the factories have translators anyway, right? 

The first thing we Mandarin speakers learn in an organization is modesty and “keep your head” down.  

In short, you are keeping your boss away from his fun.  You are a “threat” to the solution he has found for his mid-life crisis.   And you must be neutralized.

I was in an elevator once in South Korea, with a colleague, a very long time ago.  He knew the business I was in at the time much better than I did, and he had no interest in showing me the ropes.  Zero.  In his eyes, my Mandarin speaking ability was a threat to his Korean contacts and supply relationships.   All very old friends, of whom I now realize he was probably getting a payoff from.  He worked every angle he could to get rid of me.   

As he exited the elevator he turned to me in disgusst just before the doors closed and said,

"I don't even know why we need you....?" 

In short, a company war broke out and the CEO made the lazy choice to simply let us both go.    Last I heard that company was teetering on bankruptcy.

So if one is going to use his Mandarin in the workplace it would be much better if it were either within a company just starting to create a China presence or a company where the boss is allergic to Asia.   But if you are working for a company where one’s boss has already frequented China many a time, you may be seen as a threat to his “Comfort zone”, and trust me, your Boss  may feel your Mandarin is more a hindrance than an asset. It’s all selfish, my friend.  The “needs” of the corporation never come into play.   Ever.

Larger organizations give one more opportunity, but smaller companies have tighter budgets, and not everyone thus can go to China.  Which favors you.

My point is it is not really the size of the company you work for that matters, but the size of the ego of your boss.

At the end of the day the only sane solution is to have the goal of starting one's own business.   Always keep it in the back of one's mind.  Make it your goal to be the Master of Your Own Universe. 


  1. Google is learning Chinese, so I don't have too.

    Your perspective is also spot on.

  2. haha they are! Ii only wish Google would be able too help me at the conference table.

    1. Is this the same conference table where the Chinese take phone calls in the middle of meetings, fall asleep, or pick thier nose? Would using Google with an earpiece in the future be rude? Also, since they switched to an AI based model last month, the accuracy of the translation has leaped to near qualified human levels.

    2. I very much disdain the whole answer the phone thing. I do. I've found however, that when you have a good relationship with your counterpart that shit stops.

  3. I had the same issue with Japanese right out of college in the US. My boss resented me as I got to do some special projects, and would tell me that I was a show-off and arrogant. Then a number of years later in a different city/company HR wouldn't let me hire a Korean lady who was perfect for the job, and fluent in Chinese too, because language is not important and they are better candidates (this was even though we had big Korean and Chinese customer bases). American companies are just stupid when it comes to language issues. It is all about their own inadequacies. I found being in East Asia is better. No doubt you need good language skills, but since the Spoken English levels for the most part are low, the locals usually give in if your speak their language well. They may not like it though. A good deal of expats don't see this as they get stuck in the expat bubble. However, for me using your language skills for something is much easier over here than in the US.

  4. Americans....especially Americans...tend to downplay the importance of learning a foreign language. Europe, I can understand a bit, but in Asia, it is almost as if the expat rubs it in your face that he cannot speak Chinese. Of course, when I worked in GM in Shanghai, the local staff all spoke English. None of my colleagues cared I spoke Mandarin, and went out of their way to subtlety let me know it would not be important in my career. Better to hire a Chinese that spoke English than vice versa....


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