You will always be able to read the menu.....

 Yeah, I've been away awhile.  Sorry about that.  My job is crushing me, and when I'm dead tired keeping up with a blog just isn't easy to do.  Onward....

Only a few days ago I was listening to "The Pacific Century Podcast".  It is a decent podcast hosted by scholars, primarily about China.  While driving to work one of the hosts lamented America's lack of people that can speak and read Chinese.  In particular the newspaper.  While he is an up and coming China Expert, if you will, he is quick to note he himself cannot speak Mandarin. 

I've had readers ask me about how they can utilize their Mandarin to get a good job, or how to leverage it into a bright future.   And my answer has always been through one's own initiative, or through the private sector.  The American Government will not come and find  you.  There is no organized method to find, filter, let alone mentor and groom young American Mandarin speakers for a future in US Government.  None.

Should there be?  Of course there should.  Should it guarantee anyone a job in American Government?  Of course not.  We only want the best.  Need the best.  We need the best and brightest of our overseas students to seriously consider a job in Government, vis a vis our Chinese counterparts.  This goes for your Government, too.

Sweden, Nigeria, Spain, Saudia Arabia, wherever you are.  As a nation, your Society, your Government must have an organized plan to seek out and find young, idealistic students of China.  Train them and then hope to God they will want to work in the Government. 

My first year in China was in Guangzhou.  It had a population of roughly 2-3 million Chinese. My university was surrounded by rice fields.  I had to take a bus to get into town, because I was located out of town.  Today Guangzhou has 15 million people, and my old school is very much well "into" town. 

But nobody from the local consulate thought once about coming to visit me, and my classmate.  In short, there was zero outreach.   I did meet a consular official in Hangzhou, but he was there by accident and took a few of us out for lunch.  And I never heard from him again. 

Thanksgiving in Guangzhou was a drag.  I had heard the consulate was having a Thanksgiving Dinner. I wanted to go.  Most regrettably I learned the tickets were sold out.  I was of course having a tough time in Guangzhou.  It was 1990.  Living in China was a bit of a mentally trying experience for me.  Not being able to go to that dinner nearly took me over the edge.  I can imagine now, only expats "in the know" knew about that dinner, and of course gobbled up the tickets. 

What is my point?  Those expats stayed a year and left, albeit with interesting stories to tell.  But the investment in our Consulate was made in the "wrong people".    Don't invest your time in people there only for the bump in hardship pay.   Invest your time and effort in those whom are young and whose minds can still be melded.  They may not shave, and they may have long hair, and no they will probably  not wear ties, but they may possibly develop a skillset the Nation may need a generation from now.

My Government refused to do that.   I may sound bitter.  But with what I know now, without question I made the right choice to go into the private sector.  From an individual point of view, working in the private sector allowed me to learn more about China than any government job ever would have allowed. 

Which finally brings me to the point of this post:

A comment made by my daughter recently made me think.  First a things about my oldest daughter;  She is strikingly beautiful, in college and a major pain in my ass.   And her Chinese is better than mine, albeit rarely, but she fortunately lacks the stutter gene.  Try and learn a foreign language with a stutter.  

She is extremely proud of her Mandarin.  Her writing skills are superb.  But to prove it she has taken a test that actually shows how good her mandarin is. The HSK.  Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi.  Now, I tried to take it once upon a time, many, many moons ago, but while living in Japan never had easy access to it.   Alas, neither of my daughters have had this problem, and as such they have both taken it and done quite well. 

My oldest has passed it at level 5, and my youngest at level 4.  They crushed it, and could've taken the next level actually, if they had so chosen.

Only very recently, my oldest was filling out a required financial aid college application for the upcoming year, and on the form was the simple question, and I paraphrase,  "Tell us about what certificates you've obtained?".     In short, she had to choose from a drag down box.   Lo and Behold, the HSK was not on the list. 

My daughter seemed quite astonished by this.  She was a bit unhappy.  Afterall, taking the exam that amounts to the global standard for defining one's Mandarin capability, and passing at a high level is a major accomplishment within the "Mandarin as a 2nd language" world. 

Alas, her accomplishment seemed not to be appreciated beyond that bubble.  A few decades ago I took the FBI Chinese Language Exam.  It was a written exam.  At the time, spoken Chinese was my strong point and written Chinese the bane of my existence.  Well, I passed the written exam with flying colors.  I studied, true, but the exam wasn't that hard.  It was quite easy.   Today my written Chinese is eons better than it was twenty years ago.  But to my utter shock I failed the oral exam.  

I was quite angered by this and still am today.  Part of me wants to believe Chinese just don't want a White Man to speak Mandarin. I've since wondered if I failed, then who in the hell passed? The exam was given over the phone by a few mainland Chinese.  They asked me about Sarin on envelopes.   The exam wasn't overly difficult, but I was quite surprised to have failed it.   Since then I've lost count of how many Mandarin negotiations I've had with Chinese factory CEO's.  

Back to my daughter, I hope she now understands... America talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk, when it comes to the constant haranguing and great dismay it utters when crying about our supposed "dearth" of Mandarin speakers.   

I learned awhile back that it really is about your skillset, and less about your language skills, that sells you to others. And that skillset is important.   Mandarin is a "nice to have", but unfortunately, you won't get paid extra for it.  And we must be honest with ourselves, and this took me a while to learn, we can only use our language skills to get so far.  That is, one must know what their doing.  One must have a skill.  

This isn't 1979, folks.  

So I hope my eldest doesn't get discouraged by the more than perceived notion she has now formed about our government institutions non chalance regarding her Mandarin skills. But I know they won't got to waste.  Afterall, she's a big city girl.  And every big city has a Chinatown.  She will always be able to read the menu.   


  1. The American government system in training and using people to further its goals abroad is beyond stupid. Consular people are not required to speak the local language and are moved around the world on a regular basis so they don't become too local. Almost no speaks the local language and there is almost hostility to you if you do. American companies are no better. My first job out of college my manager hated the fact I could speak Japanese and thus could work on things above my pay grade and outside of her control. Even though it benefited the company since we had important Japanese clients and relationships. It just shows how parochial America still is even after being a superpower for so long. If you contrast it with the British Empire of the Victorian era nothing could be more different. Then they would train young men in the local languages and cultures of the empire (both actual and trade only) and send them out to represent the Queen, and actually successfully implement its foreign policy objectives.

    I would suggest your daughter try to work for a European, Aussie, Kiwi or Canadian company in the future that deals with China. Much better chance to be appreciated for what she can bring to the table. Yes, I agree you need other skills but the utter disregard by American institutions for language, and local knowledge is beyond compare.

    1. Ah yes, The Queen. Totally agree with your sentiment. The jealousy directed towards me in my previous jobs, along with my perceived arrogance at being the only one in my company to speak Mandarin was definitely a career killer. Unfortunately, within an American company anyway, one must "hide" their Mandarin abilities. It only generates career jealousy in my view. Remember, everyone in a large company wants the "China job".


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