Expats in China: Three-Quarters Male and Illiterate

If you've been thinking lately that Beijing's expat scene is a complete sausage fest dominated by foreigners who can barely speak Chinese, you're right: A comprehensive study of the foreign population in China released last week shows that 74 percent of the expatriate population are dudes and three out of four "understood only simple words in Chinese."

In a poll designed to figure out how to attract and retain foreign talent, the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs discovered that 73.8 percent were male, and only a shockingly low 8 percent report that they could speak at least simple Chinese.

Egads you neanderthals!

Despite the lack of foreign women, and the men's generally poor language skills, it seems most expats like it here anyhow: 70 percent report being happy with their lives in China, and only 3.3 percent want to leave as soon as their contracts are up. Another 17 percent said they were dissatisfied but wished to continue working in China.

The study, portions of which were released last Friday, reported that a reduction in bureaucratic work visa processes and better compensation are the two top items on the  foreigners' agenda for making China a more appealing place to work. The full report will be released on Wednesday (stay tuned to thebeijinger blog for more details later).

As a general sub-culture in China, expats could fare better in the language department: Considering foreign employees primarily work white-collar jobs, it seems almost shocking that nearly three-quarters can't talk easily with local counterparts in their native tongue. Then again, maybe this can be chalked up to the high standard of English that many Chinese speak, particularly in the major metro areas, which allows expats to get by without Chinese skills.

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg manages to learn the language in his spare time while running a billion-dollar company, and he doesn't even live here.

The poll indicated that the foreign population in China comes from North America (34 percent), Europe (28 percent), Asia (21 percent) and everywhere else (17 percent).

Photo: The Beijinger (archive)

Comments

To be fair: I am fortunate enough to have a job that supports my endeavors, as far as learning language goes, but several expats I know are to busy doing their jobs and working long, crazy hours, to get in any consistent and effective studying done.

^ that's definitely true -- Chinese is quite difficult to learn (particularly reading) unless you've got the time to put nose to the grindstone.

 

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Title here is a bit misleading; the study only covers only foreign professionals. That's hardly "a comprehensive study of the foreign population in China."

忠恕 wrote:

Title here is a bit misleading; the study only covers only foreign professionals. That's hardly "a comprehensive study of the foreign population in China." 

By "professionals" they mean "the employed"  so yes by definition it excludes students

I'm sure if you factor in students, there are a lot more that can speak Chinese (presuming many of them are studying Chinese or are studying at local universities)

We'll keep you updated as we get the full report (which is not yet released)

Books by current and former Beijinger staffers

http://astore.amazon.com/truerunmedia-20

A person working odd jobs, maybe 20 hours of work per week and maybe of that 10-15 of ACTUAL work, and going on visa runs every 3 months is not a professional. Nor is a one doing just enough to pay rent and have money for drinks, no matter they're sitting in their home country or giving it a go abroad.

mtnerror wrote:
A person working odd jobs, maybe 20 hours of work per week and maybe of that 10-15 of ACTUAL work, and going on visa runs every 3 months is not a professional. Nor is a one doing just enough to pay rent and have money for drinks, no matter they're sitting in their home country or giving it a go abroad.

And your point being, if they included this category of people in the survey, the results would be different in what way?

More Chinese speakers? More women?

 

Books by current and former Beijinger staffers

http://astore.amazon.com/truerunmedia-20

Considering foreign employees primarily work white-collar jobs, it seems almost shocking that nearly three-quarters can't talk easily with local counterparts in their native tongue. Then again, maybe this can be chalked up to thehigh standard of English that many Chinese speak, particularly in the major metro areas, which allows expats to get by without Chines skills.

Shocking? Not at all, I'm in that demographics too. I have a white collar job and that's exactly why I can't speak Chinese. I'm not a student, nor a freelance photographer or language teachr and simply don't have the time (and motivation) to put in the hours to properly learn Chinese.

And another factor is that most people worthwhile meeting seem to speak English anyway, so I guess I lack a true reason to learn the language. For professional purposes Chinese is not required (though it would be beneficial for smalltalk) and we'd never hire a foreigner just because he speaks Chinese, what's the point, plenty of cheapish labour here still.

Imagine hearing this from a Chinese executive, say, in the USA and see if it sounds any different (hell, this might not be too far off, given the respective directions of the two economies):

"I have a white collar job and that's exactly why I can't speak English. I'm not a student, nor a freelance photographer or language teacher and simply don't have the time (and motivation) to put in the hours to properly learn English. And another factor is that most people worthwhile meeting seem to speak Chinese anyway, so I guess I lack a true reason to learn the language."

 

Books by current and former Beijinger staffers

http://astore.amazon.com/truerunmedia-20

Zuckerberg "speaks the language"? That is relative. Maybe he can buy a baozi. I would like to see him negotiate a business deal in Chinese.

English is the international language of business and almost all professions. This will not change. Despite China's best efforts at promoting the language, Chinese will never become any form of a standardized international language. The written form of Chinese will never be adopted.

In almost all professions, I fail to see the value of learning Chinese (a very difficult language to master), relative to hiring a professional translator. Functioning day-to-day with very basic Chinese is fine for the vast majority of foreign professionals..

Kudos to those who have the time and made the effort to function in semi-literate Chinese, but I have never seen any example of it being useful in Western business or professions. It is more of a party trick to impress friends / colleagues.

Actually, I would encourage more Westerners to learn proper English before focusing on Chinese.

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