Mark Zuckerberg is blowing everyone away with his rudimentary but incredibly brave Chinese. There's a lot of business maneuvering involved here — Facebook is conspicuously absent from China, and Zuckerberg's Internet.org initiative is all about tapping into developing markets' growing demand for broadband access. But that didn't stop the Chinese audience at Tsinghua University from gasping in delight as Zuck described how a desire to communicate with his Chinese grandmother-in-law motivated him to pick up the language.
Although business executives rarely make headlines by speaking Chinese in public, Zuckerberg is hardly the first white dude to pull off this feat. (And it is a feat, even if the Facebook exec's technical grasp of Mandarin lacked the sophisticated grammar and tonal fluency of a native speaker.) He is preceded by thousands of Western ambassadors — official and unofficial alike — who've arrived in China sticking out like a sore thumb only to tell people in their own tongue: I'm making an effort. We've had high-profile leaders, such as Australia's Kevin Rudd demonstrate a remarkable grasp of Chinese. Rudd majored in Chinese in his undergrad years, and it clearly served him well at official functions where he operated as his own interpreter.
Others have been somewhat underwhelming in comparison. Jon Huntsman, the erstwhile GOP presidential candidate and President Obama's former ambassador to China, was widely lauded for being able to speak Chinese but rarely deployed the skill. And when he did, the results were often mangled. Nevertheless, Chinese state television devoted an entire profile to Huntsman, highlighting his Chinese-born daughter and a few lines of Mandarin. "My favorite is mapo doufu," Huntsman said, referring to the peppery-hot Chinese tofu dish. Asked whether he'd be running for president in 2016, Huntsman told CCTV's Wang Guan in precise but slow Mandarin, "That's a secret for the two of us" — meaning Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye — and that "perhaps in 2015 we'll talk again."
Of course, while political officials get most of the attention, ordinary Westerners who've been studying Chinese go to the mainland all the time. Chinese visa statistics show the United States has sent 100,000 Americans to study in China since 2010. One of the most famous such Westerners is a white Canadian, Mark Rowswell, who goes by the Chinese name Da Shan. In the clip below, you'll see Rowswell stunning a crowd by reading a book in perfect Mandarin. (The first video in the playlist is followed by even more ordinary Westerners who have a really great grasp of Chinese — there's even an Australian who can speak my native dialect, Cantonese!)
Because of his linguistic prowess, Rowswell has become something of a celebrity in China. Think about that for a minute: A white guy has become famous simply for speaking Chinese well, which tells you a bit about how much it means to native Chinese speakers to see a foreigner take an interest in their culture. You might think this is a universal quality — who wouldn't be flattered by that? — but in a land of over a billion people, the chances of an average Chinese person coming into contact with a white person is incredibly small, let alone a white person who doesn't automatically expect everyone else to speak English. Still, Rowswell has provoked a bit of backlash among critics (Chinese and otherwise) who argue that Da Shan is overly popular and risks creating a monolithic impression about Westerners. Rowswell himself has acknowledged that Da Shan is a character he puts on, largely for performances:
There has always been something of a Mr. Rogers quality to the Dashan character – he’s such a nice guy you sometimes wish he’d make a cameo appearance in a horror movie just so you could watch him get ripped to shreds, and then replay it over and over on YouTube.
But whatever his impact among expats and Westerners, Da Shan's impact on ordinary Chinese is arguably stronger and more emotional. It's hard to understate how much cultural and political messaging is bound up in a white person speaking Chinese, even bad Chinese. For many white foreigners, it's a nice gesture — an attempt to connect, perhaps, or a signal of respect for the local culture. But in mainland China, seeing a foreigner deign to speak the national language for a change can yield sheer delight — as you can see from how students reacted to Zuckerberg's impressive stab at Mandarin.