Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mad World: Chinese = Job?

My friend forwarded a very interesting blog entry called "Does learning Chinese lead to a good job in the United States? No." Though its argument creates quite a discouragement for all those who believe that Chinese language skills are an asset, it does have valid points. On campus, we often hear exciting stories of exotic escapades and wild adventures in East Asia, and dream of living it big without really understanding the opportunities created by understanding another world's culture, language and history. This entry grounds language ability in economic reality.

"I have been following Ben Ross' blog since its inception. He is an interesting chap who provided excellent insights into living in China when he worked in a Chinese barbers - long story.

His discussion on what it means for a Westerner to learn Chinese and spend three years in China is interesting. I admit I probably fall into the "wow - you speak Chinese - you must be able to walk into a high paid job".

The problem I now see clearly is that there are so many native Chinese who speak excellent English so the average westerner will never really be able to compete however much they try to learn Chinese.

This is a great quote. To most of my friends the "spouse" bit would be more than enough encouragement.

Rather than a fortune and a new career, most expats seem to return home with little more than a thicker waistline, a prodigious collection of DVD’s, and possibly a new spouse.

Ben speaks a lot of sense and shows some natural ability as an economist as he argues the case why his friend is ultimately doomed. His bleakness is refreshing (to an economist).

Ok, So you learned Chinese…Now where’s that dream job??? [Ben Ross's Blog]

Earlier this week I received an e-mail from an American friend of mine who had recently moved from China back to the US. My friend had spent three years in the Middle Kingdom, taught English, studied Chinese, and even worked a “real” job in Shanghai for half a year, and had now been back in United States for three months. His Chinese was solid, as it should be for anybody who spends three years in China, and good enough to be used on an occupational level. In his e-mail, he explained the frustration he was experiencing trying to secure a job in the United States which could build on his experience in China.

“I thought learning Chinese would be a hot commodity when I got back, and didn’t expect it would be this tough to find a job,” he expressed.

His sentiments are not out of the ordinary. In fact, the post-China unemployment funk is practically unavoidable for former expats upon their re-entry to the Western World, even in times when the economy is healthy. Part of the funk is due to the natural difficulties in transitioning back to American life. However, these frustrations are often aggrandized by high expectations, which are predicated on a fallacy that seems to follow any Westerner who has spent significant time living in China. It usually goes something like this and comes from the likes of parents, grandparents, teachers, generally anybody who is in a natural position to give you advice:

“Oh, you’re learning Chinese? China is the world’s next super-power, you know. You’ll be in high demand when you get back home.”

(Notice how people who make these comments never seem to be in the position to make use of your services. Yet they are confident others will be lining up to do exactly that.)

Chinese people provide similar, unsolicited life coaching. The line I hear most is:

你会英文也会中文。你应该做生意 。 “You speak English and Chinese. You should start a business.”

(As if that’s all it takes.)

The funny thing is that most of the people dispensing this kind of advice have never actually been in the situation which would require testing it out in the first place. They’ve never been an expat in China. And they’ve never looked for a “China job” in the US. However, they have heard all about it in the news, and they all seemingly buy into the axiom that: China is the next world superpower, and therefore there is no better way to cash in than to study Chinese.

The simple fact is however, mastery of Chinese, no matter how good you are, is NOT a golden ticket to employment in the United States.* That is, of course, unless your career goals are purely linguistic in nature (i.e. Chinese teacher, interpreter, or translator). More often than not, expats who learn Chinese and return home, find their way back into the same career (or school) path they had before they ever left for China in the first place.

Big money, international trades, product sourcing…these dreams are all in the trajectory of the scores of Tom Joads who show up annually in the Middle Kingdom. Everybody comes to China with a plan to strike it rich. Rather than a fortune and a new career, most expats seem to return home with little more than a thicker waistline, a prodigious collection of DVD’s, and possibly a new spouse. While China certainly is the current land of opportunity, capitalizing on this fact is not simply a matter of learning the language.

Although Chinese may in fact be in high demand, what’s equally important is to factor in is the supply of Chinese speakers. According to the US census, in 2006 there were 2.5 million** people in the United States who speak Chinese at home. That’s more than any language other than English and Spanish. What this means is that not even counting the hundreds of thousands of American currently studying Chinese as a second language, there are already over two million Americans, who by virtue of growing up speaking Chinese, speak the language better than you ever will, regardless of how much you study. From international traders to insurance salesmen to delivery boys at the local chop suey joint, most of the “China jobs” in the US are filled by Chinese Americans.

On the other side of the ocean, English proficiency in the Middle Kingdom is spreading like SARS in a Chinese train station during Spring Festival. Every year Chinese universities are churning out millions (literally) of graduating English majors, a large percentage of whom don’t find jobs with their bilingualness either. Those that do, tend to start out in the 1000 RMB per month range, about 170 USD. In short, there is no bottleneck in communication between China and the United States. And in a capitalist world governed by the laws of supply and demand, there is little justification for hiring an American and paying him an American wage solely because he can speak Chinese.

That being said, it certainly is possible to create a career out of your China experience, but here are some points you should consider.

-A decent “China job” is best attained by using Chinese to augment a pre-existing skill set. While the language alone won’t procure much in the way of employment, Chinese should give a competitive advantage to individuals who already have existing qualifications such as an engineering degree, a background in biochemistry, or experience in the financial sector.

-There are a substantial amount of career-oriented positions available which will make use of your Chinese skills. The thing is, most of them are in China, particularly Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. If your goal is to base your career on Chinese, you should be comfortable with the idea that you’re going to be spending the majority of your time in China.

-In order to secure a job using your Chinese, you’re going to have to be pretty good. Basic conversational skills and “knowing the culture” aren’t going to get you squat. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly, but you should be able to sit in on a business meeting, soak up the details, and contribute to the conversation without falling too far behind. We’re talking a pretty advanced proficiency level here. Being literate helps too.

-But most importantly, finding a good China job relies much more on your actual skill set than your language skills per se. This is where people tend to kid themselves and hide behind their HSK scores. If you’re a poor communicator, disorganized, or can’t create an Excel spreadsheet, these traits are going to hurt your chances at employment much more than your inability to properly pronounce the third tone. Regard the bulk of your China job search as you would any other job search which wouldn’t pertain to your China experience. Your Chinese language chops are the gravy.

Now all of this is not to say that learning Chinese is a waste of time. Learning a foreign language, especially one spoken by 20% of the world’s population is, provides access to a wealth of knowledge and experiences unattainable to monolinguals. The ability to speak Chinese will allow opportunities for personal and intellectual growth to which it would be impossible to attach any price tag. But in terms of paying dividends measured in annual salary, the rewards of learning Chinese will likely never exceed the time and effort put into it. If you do decide devote the time and energy to study Chinese, do so out of a desire to further your own personal curiosities and intellectual development, not under the pretense that it will directly boost your career. For that, you’d be better off getting an MBA.

*I am assuming the same would apply to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Western Europe, but since I’ve never lived in any of those countries, I’m going to limit my direct discussion to the US.

**I’m willing to grant a significant number of that 2.5 million speak a dialect other than Mandarin (Unfortunately the census lumps all Chinese dialects together). However, current trends in immigration indicate that a) Chinese immigration to the US continues to increase and b) the vast majority of recent immigrants are proficient Mandarin speakers."

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