Across Latin America, Mandarin Is in the Air
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 22, 2006; A01
BOGOTA, Colombia — Elizabeth Zamora is a busy mother and executive. Still, for three hours every Saturday, she slides into a battered wooden desk at Bogota's National University and follows along as Yuan Juhua, a language instructor sent here by China's government, teaches the intricacies of Mandarin.
Zamora already speaks German and English, but she struggles to learn written Chinese characters and mimic tones unknown in Spanish. She persists for a simple reason: China is voraciously scouring Latin America for everything from oil to lumber, and there is money to be made. That prospect has not only Zamora but business people in much of Latin America flocking to learn the Chinese language, increasingly heard in boardrooms and on executive junkets.
“It's fundamental to communicate in their language when you go there or they come here,” said Zamora, 40, a sales executive for the German drugmaker Bayer, which is growing dramatically in China. “If you don't know their language, you're lost.”
Latin America, with its vast farmlands and ample oil reserves and mineral deposits, has become a prime destination for investors and others from China, whose economy has been growing at 9 percent annually. The total value of trade between China and Latin America rose from just over $10 billion in 2000 to $50 billion last year, according to Chinese trade data.
“Latin American countries want to diversify their markets, and they see a huge opportunity, not just in the present but in the potential for growth,” said Chris Sabatini, a senior director of policy for the New York-based Council of the Americas, a business association that encourages trade in the Americas. “Latin Americans, as people in any country, should be opportunistic, and they see opportunity with China.”
Chinese companies are investing in farmland and energy installations in Brazil. Beijing has signed a free-trade agreement with Chile, its first with a Latin American country, while announcing investments in the Chilean copper industry and gas and oil fields in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia. Beijing has also cemented a $5 billion oil deal with President Hugo Chvez of Venezuela, which is seeking to diversify exports to other countries beyond the United States.
The arrival of China in a largely Spanish-speaking region half a world away might seem unusual. But Beijing is in a relentless quest for oil, coal, iron ore and copper for its factories, soybean and poultry to feed its 1.3 billion people, lumber for housing, and fish meal for its livestock. President Hu Jintao's government, which two years ago pledged $100 billion in investments for several South American countries, said it also wants to bankroll road, port and railroad developments that would help bring exports more quickly to China.
Veering toward China, though, is far from easy for entrepreneurs and students from a region that has long been intertwined with the giant to the north. The United States remains the biggest investor in Latin America, its trade with the region eight times that of China's. English prevails as a second language.
Mandarin, on the other hand, is considered far harder to learn, with dialects and a tenor significantly different from the phonetic cadences of Spanish and Portuguese. Yet the Chinese language is making gains, as is the revolutionary idea of looking west across the Pacific for business opportunities.
“The world is divided into east and west, and the culture is completely different,” said Miguel Angel Poveda, president of the Colombo-China Chamber of Commerce in Bogota. “The only way to get around it is to understand the culture and learn to do business with them, but in their language.”
Many of those taking up the challenge are young, like Leidy Catalina Ortega, 17, who recently dropped an English-language class in favor of Mandarin. Her parents want to import clothing from China to sell in Bogota. If she learns the language, she will help manage the business.
“If you're interested and work hard, you can learn and talk almost like they do,” she said. “You are afraid at first. Later you get it and move on.”
Universities across Latin America, from Mexico to Buenos Aires, are founding Asian studies programs and teaching Chinese. Institutions of all kinds — some are expensive one-on-one tutorials and others are fly-by-night language academies staffed by illegal Chinese immigrants — are being inundated with new students.
The University of Buenos Aires started its Chinese-language department in 2004 after Hu led a high-level delegation to Argentina, Brazil and other countries.
“It generated so much interest, and people started to say, 'Where is there a place to learn Chinese?' ” Maria Chao, the coordinator of the department, said by phone from Buenos Aires. “They see the language as a way to communicate and cut some distance between the two countries.”
But in her wildest dreams, Chao said, she could not have foreseen how intense the interest would be. Instead of twenty students, as she expected, more than 600 signed up for classes. Now there are more than 1,000 students studying Chinese at the university, she said, in nearly 70 classes.
Chao, who was born in China and immigrated to Argentina at age 5, said she has been astounded by the interest people have in China. She recently asked a policeman for directions and, without missing a beat, he responded: ” Ni hao ma ,” Mandarin for “How are you?”
In Peru, which has a dynamic Chinese immigrant community and an economy that is growing at 5 percent annually, business people are looking for classes that can quickly give them an advantage as the country's trade with China grows.
Joseph Cruz, 46, who has been teaching Chinese for 23 years, will soon launch a course for executives costing $2,200 a year, a hefty sum in Peru.
The course, to be taught at Lima's Catholic University, will not just deal with grammar and vocabulary, but with the trappings of Chinese culture and history, from Confucian philosophy to the importance of tea.
“The idea is to use these courses to teach people how Chinese thinking is reflected in modern China,” Cruz said. “We're not going to waste their money.”
China, too, sees great opportunity in Latin America, said Zhao Xingtian, cultural counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Bogota. He spoke on a recent night as a Colombian-Chinese salsa band — singing in both Mandarin and Spanish — prepared to play at a cocktail party given by the Colombo-Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
“Many Chinese would like to come to this country, know its people, drink its coffee,” said Zhao, speaking a fluid Spanish. “It makes us very happy that many Colombians want to learn Chinese. It's a good beginning. It's a good cultural exchange between Latin America and China.”
China is dispatching teachers abroad, sending people like Yuan Juhua to countries that just a few years ago gave short shrift to the idea of strengthening ties with Beijing. Yuan arrived here just two years ago to help launch the National University's Mandarin program.
Now, her 12-year-old daughter speaks fluent Spanish, and Yuan divides her time between teaching university students during the day and business people on weekends.
The university “didn't have any resources for the Chinese program, so after I came here, everything was a challenge for me,” Yuan said. She also found teaching Spanish speakers a challenge.
“These two languages are very different, and because of that, it's difficult for Chinese people to study Spanish and people here to study Chinese,” Yuan said. Many drop out after level one, the first of four offered. “If they don't have patience and enthusiasm, it's hard to get to level two,” she said.
In a break from Yuan's class, Miguel Aroca, a petroleum engineer for France's Total oil company, recounted the difficulties of reaching level two. Aroca, 33 and fluent in English and French, said he wanted to study Mandarin as a hobby.
Now he realizes it is a career tool. Mastering it will not be easy. “It went from being a hobby to being real work,” he said. “The last exam, I was really stressed out.”
2006 The Washington Post Company