Learning Chinese to Advance Your Career - A Personal Story
This is Kevin, founder of Capturing Chinese and editor of the books that you see on this website. Today, I would like to share a short history of my career and how having learned Chinese shapes the opportunities that I have today. Capturing Chinese is not my full time job. I enjoy reading Chinese fiction as I enjoy it and I think it is the best way to teach oneself reading, writing, and improving your Chinese vocabulary. I also derive a great deal of personal satisfaction in helping others achieve their reading goals. Capturing Chinese is a supplement to my full time job as a structural engineer in Tokyo. At Cornell University, I minored in Chinese/East Asian Studies and majored in structural engineering. After graduation, I spent one year at Beijing Language and Culture University where I sharpened my Chinese and reached a level where I could start teaching myself. I went back to the US, got my masters in Structural Engineering, and started a job with a famous structural engineering company in New York City where I used absolutely zero Chinese. Having spent so much time learning Chinese, you can imagine the frustration that I had when I found a great job, but did not use my Chinese skills that I spent so much time learning. I recently got married to my former classmate in Beijing and have moved to Tokyo to be with her. She is Japanese and speaks amazing Chinese. I now work for Nikken Sekkei, a large architecture and engineering design firm. While the company originally was mostly focused on the local Japanese market, we are now expanding abroad to China, India, Vietnam, and the middle east. I was able to land the job at Nikken because of two reasons. One that I know American structural engineering design. The second was because I know Chinese and would be able to participate in Chinese as well as Middle Eastern (English) projects. At the time of my job interview I knew very little Japanese so I had to convince them that I had the skills to learn it in the future. Having mastered a difficult language such as Chinese shows I have the patience to learn new languages. I think learning foreign languages is basically perseverance for a very long time. Learning languages is more like a marathon than a sprint. Set a good pace and keep it up for five years and you will master a new language. Learning Chinese showed that I could also learn Japanese. So thank you Chinese, number one! What I really want to communicate in this blog post is that learning Chinese by itself is not what I have found to be so special. How do you diversify yourself from the entire population of China? Engineering is a frustrating field to enter because you need to study the field for literally ten years or more before you can start designing on your own. However, during these tens years I have also spent the time to master Chinese and learn intermediate/advanced Japanese. These two skills in addition to knowing structural engineering is starting to become very powerful. For the first time in my career, I had the chance to work on my own design and then to present it to the client directly in Shanghai. The presentation was in Chinese, the report was in Chinese, and I presented. My coworkers usually have a translator, but during my part I presented myself. China is a huge market for architects and structural engineers. The Chinese enjoy building remarkable, iconic buildings and are just the type of work that I really enjoy. However, during my trip I sensed a desire by the Chinese to design these projects themselves. They don't want to hire foreign companies, but do so because they want the world's best design. During the meeting, they were discussing why can't Chinese firms match the world's best design firms. Of course, this part was in Chinese and my coworkers could not pick up on this conversation. I am getting the impression that being able to present in Chinese myself shows a great respect for the Chinese culture. Speaking Chinese is showing respect for their culture and will ultimately help your business opportunities. So this business trip can be summed up as follows: they hired us for our architectural and structural abilities, but presenting in Chinese shows respect to them and diversifies yourself from your competitors. We have some big and iconic projects coming up in China. I am finding that I might be thrown some very interesting and challenging work quite soon. Knowing Chinese allows me to handle working in China better than those who don't. Famous Chinese hands (that I can think of) use their knowledge of Chinese to supplement their main skill. For example, Peter Hesseler (author of many books on China: The River Town, Oracle Bones, Country Driving, etc.) is an excellent writer, journalist, and works very diligently. He now speaks Chinese, but his first and main skill is being a writer. Jon Huntsman, a Republican candidate for president, is a politician first and can speak Chinese second. I am interested to see how his candidacy performs in relation to his ability to speak Chinese. Everyone knows that Chinese is hard. Being able to speak, read, and write this very difficult language reflects on your character to pursue a difficult task for a very long time. Learning languages don't require you to be particularly smart, or a genius. Learning languages requires devotion. Companies like people who can devote themselves to mastering a skill. That I can promise without a doubt is true in Japan where people take pride in mastering their craft over their lifetime. So learn Chinese. The language and culture are amazing. Their country is growing quickly and will have opportunities for everyone to help in their development. However, I urge everyone to learn Chinese as a secondary skill. Learn accounting, engineering, finance, business, law, writing, politics, etc. and then use your ability to speak Chinese to diversify yourself from your peers. How has learning Chinese affected your career? My experience is only my experience. Please share your thoughts below.