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In praise of…The Mandarin bum

Posted: 04/16/2014 11:00 am

There is Phil from the United States who has the very Chinese affliction of clinking glasses with you every time he takes a sip of booze, which is alarmingly frequent. There is Barry from South Africa who is a black belt in several martial arts and has his hair done up in a Qing Dynasty-style queue. There is also Sam from Canada who came to China in 1999 and for most of the next 14 years would work in Shenzhen without the right visa.

These men have two things in common. They speak fluent Mandarin and they are not professionals. They are examples of what is known in some circles as “The Mandarin bum”. They have spent the bulk of their working lives in the notoriously unstable position of teaching English in China. They are the antithesis of those on corporate packages who live in an “expat bubble”.

Do these English teachers warrant the label of “loser” that is often attached to expats who fail to carve out a professional career? Well, the “loser” is a concept that is particular to modern urban culture in which the value of a person is measured not by what they bring to the local community, but by the amount of wealth and status they acquire. By this measure, the migrant workers on whose labour China’s economic miracle has been built are also losers.

More important than usefulness

Novelist Alan Garner said in his book of lectures and essays “The Voice That Thunders” that nowadays we learn languages for the wrong reasons. We learn German not to see into the heart of Goethe, but to book a hotel room in Berlin.

Poet Matthew Arnold, who was the son of a headmaster of the famous Rugby School, said education should be about studying the best things that have ever been written and said. He lived in Britain during a time when elite education revolved around Latin and Ancient Greek. This also happens to be the time when Britain ruled the world, but that’s beside the point.

There are plenty of reasons why learning Mandarin makes you a smarter and more interesting person. Reading Chinese aloud activates far more widespread networks of the right hemisphere of the brain than English, probably because of the subtlety of both visual and tonal demands by Chinese, according to Ian McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.”

The pictorial writing system means the language wears its etymology on its sleeve in a way European languages don’t. For example, the character for man – “男” is a picture of an east-Asian field on top of a sickle, which is a symbol of strength. This most likely symbolizes the belief that the societal role of men is to offer strength in the field. The character for woman – “女” appears to be a picture of a demure woman curtsying or crossing her legs. The language is misogynistic as hell, but at least it lets you know.

Moreover, mastery of this language gives learners access to one of the world’s great cultures. It is the culture of the four great novels, Tang Dynasty poetry, The Tao Te Ching, and great scholars of more recent history such as Hu Shi and Lin Yutang.

It is also the culture that gave us the Sui Dynasty poem that goes “In books there is always a golden house. In books, there is always a beautiful woman.” Admittedly, just about every graduate in China is learning that real life is not poetry and it takes more than book smarts to earn enough to buy any house, let alone a golden one. But education is, lest we forget, about learning the greatest things that have ever been written and said.

Why Mandarin is probably not that useful

Will Mandarin ever be a global language? Going to Yangshuo and listening to Russian tourists communicate with Chinese locals in broken English is a reminder that it will take some time before English is supplanted as the lingua franca. In fact, a study by French investment bank Natixis last month concluded that French could be the most spoken language in the world by 2050, leaving both English and Mandarin lagging.

Maybe East Asian languages just weren’t meant to go global. According to linguist Claude Hagege, writing developed in Europe and the Middle East for the purpose of controlling crops, herds, and people. Writing in China did not appear to develop with the same ominous, utilitarian agenda. “The origin of Chinese writing appears to have been magicoreligious and divinatory rather than economic and mercantile,” writes Hagege.

When I met a fellow of the Institute for Translation and Interpreting (ITI) last year, he told me that the Japanese military didn’t bother encoding much of its most sensitive information during World War 2, so confident were they that no foreign devil would ever understand. Japan’s post-war economic rise certainly didn’t lead to the language taking over Yangshuo.

For this reason, becoming fluent in one of these languages is no guarantee that you will get a decent job. As a member of the ITI, I am technically a professional Mandarin translator, but I am neither rich nor powerful. Still, I’m one of the lucky ones. Phil, who we met in the first paragraph, is also fluent in Cantonese but cannot return to Hong Kong because of the six-figure credit card debt he amassed when he lived there.

Escape routes from Mandarin bum status

The Mandarin bum exists, but this article is by no means suggesting that learning Mandarin while working as an English teacher is a dead end. Matt Schiavenza, a senior associate editor at The Atlantic was an English teacher. After attaining an advanced qualification in spoken Mandarin and written Chinese at Kunming College of Eastern Languages in 2008, he (and this is the really important part!) then developed related professional skills that would help him stand out in the job market.

Being a trained journalist is good, being a trained journalist who is fluent in Mandarin is better. Learning English is nothing short of a national obsession in China, so as well as mastering this language, students of it need to think about how they will set themselves apart from hundreds of millions of fellow Mandarin speakers in the job market, but only if that’s what they want.

Expats who manage to go from being backpacker English teachers to professionals deserve lots of credit. But climbing a career ladder is only one of many reasons to learn a foreign language. As the English teacher in the Alan Bennett play and 2006 movie “The History Boys” tells his students: “All knowledge is precious, whether or not it serves the slightest human use.”

And if that notion is corny, then corn me up.

  • Ray H

    This must be the most quotable thing I’ve read from Kevin, great!

    “The language is misogynistic as hell, but at least it lets you know.”

    And of course excellent take on the concept of loser…

    Is it so bad to learn German to book a hotel room instead of read poetry? We must start somewhere. I can certainly book hotel rooms in Mandarin easily enough but it will be years before I read Mo Yan in the native language. In the meantime the practical well get me there slowly and even if it doesn’t get me there it’s still been good for my brain right?

    As for the topic at hand, I’ve met a few Mandarin bums but I think (I hope) most of them eventually get to do something more useful eventually. It still however surprises me when I meet someone who can recite Confucian dialectics and yet even *I* make more money than him.

    Also, the Japanese WWII lesson. Though Nihongo isn’t an international language, they were obviously very wrong to be so callous to believe no foreign devils could ever learn! For the most part Japanese don’t even want to be so international, soft power notwithstanding they like their island mindset. Chinese might have more of a goal of being a global tongue, but I agree East Asian languages probably cannot ever get there.

    I’d like to learn more about this Phil, seems like an epic story.

    • Dmitry Lazarenko

      Yep, more details on Phil, please

  • Zen my Ass

    Good read, Kevin. You always learn something by reading your pieces.
    I would say all knowledge is useful, all knowledge is accessory … attitude is most important. You are successful if you have the right drive, not the right skill.

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