They trickle into this tiny town of roughly six million people and their Vietnamese, Korean, Indonesian, Turkish, Japanese, Philippino and Uzbekistan voices join mine as we struggle together, united in our quest to one day wield language skills strong enough to sing Chinese karaoke and order Chinese food. If and when we have triumphed, these exhausted trainees will return home to go beyond karaoke on paths laid out by an ever shifting world marketplace and, by extension, their parents and careers.
Before I talk about students, I should talk about what my friend told me about the expats. There really aren’t many foreigners here at all, and by that I really do mean non-Han Chinese people. Outside the university I was told to expect about six or seven, and after one trip to a bar I may have seen half of them. My friend broke down the foreigners I’d meet here into three groups, and suggested I learn to quickly identify them. Obviously businesspeople are the first, here to cut deals with the new superpower or get a new toy made. The second are what he calls “escapists”. Back in the day these were sometimes actual criminals running from the law but nowadays are more often the sort ducking out of society as they knew it to hide out somewhere else and do some drinking and lounging on a fat foreign dollar. The third he called the, “daoists”. These people spend very little time in bars and more time studying Chinese, Kung Fu, Weiqi, history and culture. These are the nerds that came to China for China and have the same gleam in their eyes for temples and kung fu lore that the business people have for gold and the escapists for pints. These are my people.
Things mix up a bit more at the university. Here I’ve discovered a different breakdown, as everyone came to learn Chinese or how to teach it overseas. There are, of course, the “daoists” again and they are, of course, my favorite because, well, they’re me. The Korean speed-skating tea master here to study Chinese and learn about tea in Fujian province, one of the birthplaces of almost half the world’s famous teas. The Indonesian who hung out in Japan for seven years before wandering into China and falling in love with the country. The Belgian on what he at first called, “vacation”, although given our class workload that is certainly a subjective classification.
The second group is similar to mine in some ways and, surprisingly, just as dedicated to studying: the bored spouse. Either though fouled paperwork or choice they’ve found themselves here with a working spouse and without a job. For those inclined towards challenge none is more immediately intimidating or visible than reading road signs and menus. Cryptic symbols once the realm of tattoos are now everywhere and calling out to be heard and understood. What are all of those people saying that keep whispering, “waiguoren” and pointing?
The first two groups are fairly tiny. The third is quite a bit larger. These are the children of the Chinese diaspora shipped, willing or not, to their homeland to regain their native tongue. These are Chinese-Indonesians, Chinese-Philippinos, and Chinese-Thais — sometimes a little bit cranky about it but generally willing to pick up this language. In my classroom they are, unfortunately for me, curve-blowing ringers who give the teachers the false impression that everyone is keeping up just fine given that they heard this language every day growing up. If they stick around long enough, or had enough Chinese coming in, these students also take the teaching track and pick up certificates to teach the now sought-after Chinese in their home countries.
Perhaps largest, often related to this group, and second only to them in how fascinating it is to me that they exist, are the COOs. Not CEOs, not CFOs, but rather COOs: “Children Of Owners” of business in their home countries. (No, I didn’t make that up!) I think what really makes their role intriguing to me is that these are kids following an old model where the children are destined to take over the family company or hotel. These days, one of those kids has to learn Chinese to talk to suppliers and, in the future most believe, customers.
One guy’s dad was almost cheated when a Chinese company tried to buy his translator right out from under him, right in front of him at the table. When he was told later what had happened that was it; he sent his son to China to grow a translator he could trust. Of course, his son is young, would rather party, and has already decided he’s skipping learning to read altogether. (This is a theme with several COOs I’ve met.) If this doesn’t work out he’s apparently been told he can become a chef.
One teenaged guy from Uzbekistan is already on the job. While we had noodles together he was on a cell phone going back and forth between his father and the Chinese supplier of shoe making machinery they’d purchased. He’s only in his second semester and so, while my dedication is perhaps lacking compared to his, he’s given me high hopes about my skills over the next few months.
A Thai student was working hard on learning to play piano but ditched it when the piano market was saturated and switched to what is apparently, for cruise lines, more rare: violin. “You can make 300 rmb an hour with violin right now!” This is the backup plan, of course, to taking over the family hotel in Thailand with its many Chinese customers. I never in my life thought I’d hear someone break down the relative profitability of various forms of musical performance.
Whatever their role, the COOs are a sharp bunch. A late night discussion revealed that even the one who appeared laziest (or, as he puts it, “likes to do things simple”) had a pretty good grasp on asian economics and had already been cutting deals moving various metals and materials around. Anything, that is, that isn’t controlled by the mob or the government. “You can’t sell certain metals. You’ll get shot.” I’m not sure how true that is or not, but it certainly seems to keep certain markets a monopoly.
Now, most of these last two groups of students would normally have gone to Beijing and, honestly, many of them wish they had been allowed to. Beijing is jammed with foreign students learning Chinese and the city is packed and hopping with bars, foreigners, etc. Which is, of course, the point. “I don’t want you going to Beijing and spending all of your time with Indonesian students and not learning any Chinese”, one friend’s father told her. She herself admits that while she’s bummed about having been sent here, that is, in fact, absolutely what would have happened. “There are whole schools filled with Indonesians there now. All of my friends are there,” she said.
Beijing or not, learning Chinese is a hot new sport. I stumbled into the tech startup boom as that happened. I was making documentary films as independent film took off. Being around this crew I can’t help but wonder if following yet another childhood dream may have, yet again, accidentally dropped me into a front row seat at the start of the next big game.