China at a Glance
Intercultural Communication in China
If you are an English native speaker with a B.A. or teaching degree, or even just a TEFL qualification, you have the chance to work in China as an English teacher. This option is especially popular among self-made expats who would like to live and work abroad for a few years, but may not have the hard-skill set currently in demand. China’s economic success and the rise of the urban middle class also explain why more and more Chinese students and employees are interested in learning English. Further, they are overwhelmingly biased towards learning it from native speakers.
If you would like to teach at an international school, at a university, or a language center, you need official teaching credentials from your home country. For smaller institutions in the provinces, the actual requirements are often lower. In the latter case, sometimes simply being a native speaker may be sufficient to get recognized as a “foreign expert” by Chinese authorities, which is an essential requirement for obtaining a Z visa to legally work as a teacher.
However, when going to teach at such a small or even obscure institution, beware of unaccredited schools and unstable employment conditions. Your employer should be officially accredited by the Chinese government and offer you a proper contract.
It cannot be stressed often enough that a working knowledge of Mandarin is an invaluable asset for any expat in China. Not only does it provide you with a distinct advantage at work, even in a multi-national company, it also makes everyday life much, much easier – particularly when it comes to the written word.
The Chinese language family actually includes seven language groups, whose pronunciation may be mutually unintelligible. Most hàn zì (Chinese characters), however, are the same throughout the country: Even though they can be pronounced differently in various regional languages, from pǔtōnghuà (Standard Mandarin) over wú yǔ (Shanghainese) to báihuà (Cantonese), their meaning stays the same.
Understandably, many Western expats consider the 40,000 different characters one of the biggest obstacles to learning Chinese. “Only” 3,000-4,000 are required for full literacy, though.
Expats from other East Asian countries have a clear advantage here: The Japanese kanji and the Korean hanja, which are still widespread in Korea’s academic literature, are based on the Chinese writing system. Furthermore, pīnyīn (Latin transliterations) cannot always be relied upon. They tend to be rather inconsistent.
In addition to the hàn zì, the tonal properties of the Chinese language family also confuse lots of Western expats. Tonal languages, which use high and low tones to distinguish the meaning of otherwise identical words, are common in many other regions, such as Southeast Asia or West Africa. However, they are not typical of most modern Indo-European languages, like English.
Hitting the right pitch to differentiate between mā (mother) and má (horse) is definitely a challenge for lots of expats. However, taking the time and putting in the effort to study Standard Mandarin is worth it. Speaking Chinese will positively impress your Chinese coworkers, business contacts, neighbors, and friends, even if you speak it badly at first.
Verbal communication isn’t everything. Most difficulties in intercultural encounters between well-meaning parties do not arise from what is said, but from implicit assumptions and non-verbal signals.
In order to navigate the Chinese business world, you do not only need to re-learn some basic etiquette and courtesies, such as the correct way of giving a toast, you also have to examine much of what you take for granted, like attitudes towards seniority, hierarchies, and the relationship between the group and the individual.
The first words with which you should start your intercultural crash course are guānxì (networking, relationships, reciprocity) and miànzi (“face”, i.e. public reputation, personal dignity, social prestige). You need at least a basic understanding of these concepts to get along in China.
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