A Black Businesswoman in China: Learning The Language (Part 3)

You must study Mandarin and Cantonese if you really want to compete in the global marketplace

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In our third installment of my series of posts on doing business in China, I am sharing my experiences on the importance of learning the language.  How well does one need to know Mandarin (mainland China) or Cantonese (primarily in Hong Kong) in order to conduct business transactions? (Read my earlier posts on being black in China and the importance of business card usage to Chinese business protocol.) Let’s state this as plainly as possible: If you are going to conduct ongoing business transactions in China, you will need full command of the language.

My colleague and I were connecting with employers to identify potential internship opportunities for a university client. The continual request from human resources departments and the hiring managers was, “knows Mandarin” and “ knows Cantonese.”  While the degree of other skills varied by each employer, all of them wanted some exposure to the language.  This was a constant reminder to me why Black Americans should consider studying Mandarin and Cantonese if we ever want to compete in this global marketplace — myself included!

Even employers who shared in their written meeting request that full comprehension of the language was not necessary required some level of basic language skills.  I participated in several meetings with university alumni who translated our entire meetings with their team members.  Those were tough meetings!  They tended to be lengthy as it required dual translation–i.e. English to Mandarin and Mandarin to English.  You knew that huge chunks of the conversation were not being relayed — to both parties.  I continually would search for short phrases or easy sentences to communicate my thoughts and  often stumped my translators with idioms and common American phrases that tend to be hard to translate.

I can’t imagine how difficult this would be if I were involved in the process for longer than a one-hour meeting.  Bottom line: Learn the language.

Before I left for China, I took some basic lessons online using Rosetta Stone as well as downloadable Mandarin language software (some of it free).  Besides my guidebook, I listened to a crash course on the plane and gained a few phrases during my stay.

The biggest difficulty with learning Mandarin and Cantonese are the tones.  The untrained ear doesn’t hear the different distinctions and inflections in the languages.  For example, many Romance languages allow you to pronounce the word in any manner you can muster.  In Mandarin and Cantonese, your inflections changes the entire meaning of the word.  The word shu can be pronounced where it sounds like “shu” “sha” and “shuu.”  Also, if you enunciate the beginning of the word instead of emphasizing the falling tone at the end, you change the entire meaning.  Yes, you will make mistakes.  I had the most fun with cab drivers who drove me to completely wrong areas of town.  And I have been sent to the restroom instead of a store I was searching for.

After a long day of interacting (or attempting to speak) in Mandarin, I became very receptive to hearing English. In the past, this was never a concern in my travels to other parts of the world.  But China was different.  I found I had a natural affinity for and a tendency to migrate to areas with expats, and became very adventurous about approaching individuals or groups when I heard the familiar sounds of English.  It’s easy to connect with the expat community abroad and you’ll receive a ton of great recommendations for local attractions, restaurants (for example, Black Sesame Kitchen), and sightseeing. (In Shanghai, I recommend checking Hip in Shanghai, TravelChinaGuide.com, Wikitravel.org/en/Shanghai/Bund, the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Longhua Temple.)

If you know any phrases that you would recommend to business travelers visiting China, please post them below.  Share both the Chinese pronunciation and the phonetic pronunciation.

The next installment of this series will share some cost-effective and time-saving tips for daily travel in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong.  Don’t forget to check out my earlier blog posts as well!

Related articles:

A Black Businesswoman in China: Don’t Skimp on Business Cards (Part 2)

A Black Businesswoman in China: Traveling as a Foreigner

Malla Haridat, the founder and CEO of New Designs for Life, is a nationally recognized expert in the specialized field of entrepreneurship education and has trained over 1,000 students. She has traveled extensively throughout the United States working in partnership with companies developing creative solutions for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. A dynamic thinker, strategist, and speaker, Malla now works with a wide variety of organizations applying her creative talents to the challenges of business transformation. Her company was awarded the 2005 New York City Small Business Award of the Year by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and has been featured in publications like The New York Times and on Martha Stewart Radio.

  • Take a peak at the first blog introducing minorities to luxury travel options…www.diverse-a-fly.com Thanks…Terri

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  • Shannille

    I can completely relate to your experiences Malla. I’m currently living in mainland China (Yidu City, Hubei) and teaching oral English. My mandarin (Putonghua) is almost non-existent. In a city of 400,000 people, myself and my three fellow oral English teachers are the only foreigners. I’m the only black American in the entire city, so I get a lot of attention. This also makes life very interesting.

    The book (as you have posted above) “Chinese for Dummies” is very helpful.

    Some helpful phrases are:
    Ni hao (nee how) = Hi! How are you?

    Xiexie (shyeh shyeh) = Thank you

    Duibuqi (dway boo chee) = Excuse me

    Bu keqi (boo kuh chee) =You’re welcome

    Deng yixia (dung ee shyah)= Wait a minute

    I hope this helps future travelers!

    • ccb

      Hi Shannille, Can you tell me how the Chinese feel about Westerners attempting their language? Are they more receptive? Do they find it comical or offensive?

      What about hiring a full-time translator? Is that possible?

      • Shannille

        Generally they are very shocked to see foreigners (wygoren), and often times yell out “Foreigner!” and point and smile(most natives think I’m from Africa). Then they proceed to speak the only English they know, which is “Hello!”. But they find it very comical for foreigners to learn their language, and encourage foreigners to do so. The people of China are very friendly, warm, and receptive.

        It’s difficult to find a native(especially since I live in a smaller city) who speaks English well enough to translate. So hiring a full-time translator would be out of the question in my case. But we have a foreign affairs liaison(and fellow teacher) here at the school who helps with translating things and daily life. Sometimes I ask my students who are very good at English to translate things for me, they’re always willing to help.

        It’s possible to get through daily life here without knowing the language fluently. Most of the items in the grocery stores are in English and Mandarin so that helps as well.

        If you have anymore questions feel free to ask!

  • Shannille, you just gave me my first Chinese lesson! And thank you especially for the phonetics! I have a friend whose mother jokingly says that all you need to know how to say in another language is where’s the bathroom and can I please have a cold beer.

    • Shannille

      No problem!, or in Mandarin (Mayo wenti!). I’m sad to say that I don’t even know how to ask “Where’s the bathroom?”. I usually just look for the signs that have the stick figure with the skirt!

  • vc

    Thank you for this information! I have looked all over the web and found very little information on African Americans living, working or doing business in China – Hong Kong. I am leaving next week and will be there for several weeks. Staying with a friend, but will be on my on part of the time. I will be writing about my experiences and interactions. Can’t wait.