Every year in early May my husband flies off to Omaha to listen to Warren Buffett speak to his shareholders. It’s been a tradition in our family for more years than I can count. When he returned last weekend, he told me there were more Chinese attendees than ever and that Warren Buffett had told the audience that if he were a college student today, he would most certainly learn Mandarin.
Almost 30 years ago (29 to be exact), I was wondering about this very issue. Should I study Mandarin, a language spoken in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and more and more places around the world? Or should I just wait another year until I study in Hong Kong and learn Cantonese, the mother language there? Over 60 million people speak Cantonese, including folks in Chinatowns around the world. So which would be better for me to learn?
I ended up studying Mandarin the year before I moved to Hong Kong. I figured I could learn to read the signs in Hong Kong (only partially true, as I learned simplified characters and Hong Kong uses traditional ones) and could return to Baltimore and continue to study it there. If I started Cantonese in Hong Kong, there would really be no where for me to continue it back in the US.
In Hong Kong, apart from my roommates, who are brilliant and speak at least four languages, I had very little opportunity to speak Mandarin when I was out shopping, or getting something to eat, or with local friends. It was so rare to hear Mandarin in Hong Kong in 1990-91 that I had to go into China or to Taiwan to get any practice, which meant I had like two weeks of practice all year.
So when I left Hong Kong at the end of the 1991 spring semester, I traveled around Southeast Asia, China, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. Mandarin was obviously useful those two weeks in China (Shanghai and Beijing), but it also came in handy on a flight from Saigon to Danang when I sat next to a Vietnamese helicopter pilot and my French wasn’t up to snuff and he didn’t know English. Mandarin, though, was a common denominator. (He learned to fly helicopters in Beijing.)
I returned to the US and spent the next three years learning more Mandarin. When I returned to Hong Kong in 1994 for grad school, most locals there still didn’t speak it, but there were more mainland Chinese in the territory then. I found a group at the university and got to practice it quite a bit. Then I married someone from China.
At that point, I was glad I’d had about 6 years of Mandarin. If I’d studied Cantonese, would I have been drawn to the mainland crowd in grad school? It’s hard to know. They were certainly outgoing and welcomed all students on their outings. Apart from a serial predator and some other men who didn’t seem to remember they had wives back in China, the mainland students became good friends. Plus, I married one of these students. Over the next four years, I learned a little Cantonese and took a class one semester offered at my work.
After moving to San Francisco, my then-inlaws joined us for a year to help take care of our baby. Mandarin came in handy there, too. If I hadn’t spoken it, I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with my inlaws at all. And when they were caring for my infant while I was toiling away at work, it was definitely convenient to be able to know what was going on during the day when I called home.
Even after I moved back to Chicago and got divorced, Mandarin was useful when I took Jake to parent/tot Mandarin classes and made Chinese friends. Then I got involved in an alumni group from my graduate school where everyone spoke Cantonese. This was when I wished I’d learned it formally instead of just learning enough to shop, order at restaurants, and ask directions.
When I returned to Hong Kong in 2012 for the first time since leaving in 1998, I was pleasantly surprised by two things. One, I could speak Mandarin just about anywhere and locals would speak it back to me (BUT PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM NOT IN ANY WAY INSINUATING THAT MANDARIN SHOULD BE THE LINGUA FRANCA OF HONG KONG; I’m talking about my personal reckoning and nothing else). And, two, the little Cantonese I’d picked up came back!
I’ve been returning every year since that initial trip back and love practicing and hearing Cantonese out in the streets. Everyone knows I speak Mandarin because shop owners often reply in Mandarin, but that’s okay, too. (I’ve only returned to China once in the last 20 years.)
Today I use Mandarin and Cantonese several times a week when I volunteer with seniors in Chinatown. I also teach a citizenship class to Chinese immigrants who are starting with ABC. Most of these students are from northern China with incredibly clear and beautiful Mandarin, but a couple speak Cantonese. Since none of these students speaks any English, I have to teach in Chinese.
So this is where my decision to learn Mandarin seems right for me. Cantonese is much more difficult, but I’m convinced I could have done it okay lah if I’d had the same intensive, three hour a day, four day a week classes that first year in Hong Kong, but in Cantonese instead of Mandarin. I would have had lots of practice hearing it and speaking it on the streets, plus my amazing roommates tried to teach me difficult Cantonese sounds even when I wasn’t formally studying it, so I could have spoken more with them had I learned it. We’re still super close today!
In any case, I’m so glad I learned Mandarin. In my volunteer work, I mainly use Mandarin. When I need to switch to Cantonese for students who prefer speaking that, I gladly accommodate them. I may not get paid in this work, but it’s so rewarding and I love my students. When people say folks in the US should go back to where they came from if they don’t want to speak English, I say take a freaking seat. And as Warren Buffett would say, go learn Mandarin.