Westerners can level playing field by learning Mandarin

Westerners can level playing field by learning Mandarin
Former Australian PM Kevin Rudd (left) and former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. Although out of office, these Mandarin speakers can still earn some soft diplomacy points for the West.

As I watched Mrs Michelle Obama struggle to paint a single Chinese character, I am grateful my Anglo-American daughter already knows thousands of them. At 23, Sarah is proficient in Mandarin. And that opens doors. In three years, if all exams go well, she will qualify as a full-fledged solicitor in Hong Kong. With a Western mindset, she will meet the Chinese on their turf, using their mother tongue.

Sarah's China dream started with a Disney movie - Mulan. At age 10, she started spending summers at Sen Lin Hu, a Chinese immersion camp in Minnesota, eventually reading Chinese and Japanese at Cambridge and working summers in China.

Sarah is not the only one. A growing number of 20-something Westerners - with functional Mandarin - already work in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Thousands more will follow in their footsteps, including some of the 20,000 Americans studying in China this year alone. American Jim Rogers made headlines when he moved to Singapore and enrolled his Mandarin-speaking daughters in local schools. But he was not exceptional either. Even in Minneapolis, Minnesota - in the middle of America - my young niece and nephew attend a Minnesota-funded Chinese immersion school that begins in kindergarten.

While the world anxiously waits for these Mandarin speakers to mature - to become the West's diplomatic leaders of tomorrow - what about today? Actually, the only Mandarin-speaking Western head of state was forced out of office last year: Mr Kevin Rudd, Australia's former prime minister.

Mr Rudd's defeat was a much bigger loss for East-West relations than most people realise. He's now absent from high-power summits, including this week's Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, where Presidents Obama and Xi "conversed" with each other through interpreters.

Despite his loss of power, Mr Rudd remains a superstar in China. He counts some 800,000 followers in his two social media accounts. The former prime minister is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard, pondering the East-West diplomatic relationship, but he also travels extensively.

His appeal among Chinese students is obvious. He peppers speeches with Mandarin, waxing eloquent about the China dream of prosperity and national rejuvenation, and chastising the West for not giving China enough respect. When answering questions at the LKY School of Public Policy, he eagerly launches into seemingly flawless Mandarin.

LKY School administrator Wang Tong, who supervises Chinese students through a special Mandarin programme, follows Mr Rudd with enthusiasm on Weibo.com. She tells me his Mandarin is better than that of Singaporean or Hong Kong Chinese. She applauds him for introducing himself as Laolu, which is rather like saying, "Hi, I'm Uncle Rudd."

"He knows all about China and our way to communicate - zhong guo tong," Ms Wang says.

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