By now, we’ve all seen the video of Mark Zuckerberg wowing crowds at the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management with his Chinese. If you haven’t, see a video from Reuters here:
As Zuckerberg himself admits and several news outlets have noted, his Chinese is “hen zao gao” — very bad. But why is everyone fawning over him?
First of all I have respect for anyone who makes an effort to engage an audience in their own language, and Zuckerberg made a fine effort here, not least because Chinese is notoriously difficult for people from an Indo-European linguistic background.
But to anyone who actually knows Chinese, Zuckerberg spoke like a child, with all his intonations out of place, so that at some points during the 30-minute session, it’s hard to understand what the hell he’s actually saying. If I were to bastardize the language the way he did, I would have gotten a swift ass-whooping and been sent into a corner to reflect on the great insult I had committed against the great language of our forefathers. And Mandarin isn’t even my native dialect.
The sad thing is, this kind of fawning over white people speaking our language is all too common. I’ve seen people break into applause when Brits and Americans break out their Mandarin. The girls go wild. The guys want to give them a medal. Congratulations, you have achieved mediocre competency in a language with zero grammar!
These attitudes have real consequences. I know of one case where a white candidate got preference over a Chinese applicant for a job where Chinese was essential, because the Chinese interviewers were so impressed by their kindergarten-level ability in Chinese, even though the other candidate had native competency in both Chinese and English.
Anyone who moves to another country or has a spouse from another culture, should, by default, learn that language. For me and many people, that is simply a given. It’s about respect for that culture and the people you live and work with. So Zuckerberg should speak Chinese, his wife’s language and that of his in-laws. And I should speak Russian in Russia, German in Germany, Mandarin with my mainland peers, and Cantonese with my family, friends, relatives and colleagues. There is no award for it, and no one should expect applause.
Most of the Chinese-learning English speakers I know are extremely humble about their fluency. They’ll apologize ahead of time, or give fair warning that the intelligence quotient of the conversation is about to take a steep dive — which is what many of us do when learning a foreign language. That’s because they know their Chinese sucks. The only thing missing is our acknowledgement of that fact.