When she started college in 2000, Tang Guofang didn't chose a popular major such as computer science or business administration that would have given her an edge in China's increasingly competitive job market. Instead, she enrolled in a newly launched course that attracted only a handful of students and puzzled her parents: Teaching Mandarin as a Second Language.
Equally vexing to them was her decision to take a job teaching Mandarin in Thailand after graduation. But for the native of Guilin, now 27 years old, working abroad for two years or more made perfect sense. 'I knew that if I stayed in China, my path in life would have been set out for me, whereas if I lived abroad, I would develop a different understanding of the world,' says Ms. Tang, who now teaches 8-year-olds at an international school near Bangkok.
Meet a new breed of Chinese migrant worker: young, educated and hungry for new experiences and international travel. Although the West has been churning out globe-trotting English instructors for decades, thousands of young Chinese are now discovering that teaching Mandarin is an increasingly feasible way of funding foreign adventures. They're returning to China transformed by their experiences, and with a fresh, international outlook. 'I wanted to go out of the country and have a look around the rest of the world,' says Liu Shiming, a slight 31-year-old who taught in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, for a year in 2005 and 2006. 'For us Chinese, international travel has become easier, but it's still not that easy. So I thought teaching would be a good way to get to see the world.'
A few years ago, Ms. Liu and her fellow instructors might have struggled to find students. Now, they're being welcomed with open arms as more people world-wide rush to learn China's official language amid the country's expanding influence. Only about 25,000 students in American public schools were studying Mandarin in 2000. Since then, public school systems in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Houston have stepped up Mandarin instruction, doubling that number, according to estimates by the Asia Society, a New York nonprofit organization aimed at boosting U.S.-Asia ties.
Six-year Bangkok resident Jackie Thompson, 41, from Australia, has both of her children, Georgina, 11, and Sam, 7, take Mandarin classes. 'We're looking at 15 years down the line, when Georgina has graduated from university,' she says. 'If you have three people interviewing for a job -- one speaks Spanish, one speaks French and one speaks Mandarin -- we're quite sure that it's the Mandarin speaker who's going to get the job.'
Mandarin fever runs especially high in Asia, where countries are directly feeling China's economic, political and, increasingly, cultural clout. Thailand and South Korea are planning to introduce Mandarin classes in schools, and Thai officials have said they hope a third of all high school students will be enrolled in Chinese language classes within five years. In Bangkok, private Chinese language centers have mushroomed, while an increasing number of international schools are boasting about their trilingual curricula in Thai, Mandarin and English. Mandarin schools are even opening in Indonesia, where the language was banned for more than three decades as an anti-Communist move by former dictator Suharto.
For its part, China is happily exporting Mandarin teachers as part of a campaign to expand its 'soft power' by promoting its national language. Beijing has been upfront about its language ambitions, saying it wants 100 million Mandarin students world-wide by 2010, compared to the current estimate of 40 million. To meet those goals, the government's National Office for Teaching Chinese, known as the Hanban, has since 2004 opened language and cultural centers called Confucius Institutes in more than 30 countries and sent overseas more than 2,000 volunteer teachers, with the largest numbers going to the U.S. and Thailand.
Young Chinese are heeding the call in droves to convert the world to Mandarin. Last year alone, the Hanban received about 11,000 applications for its volunteer program (teachers receive a stipend of $400 to $600 a month), of which about 1,000 were accepted, says Xue Hualing, the program's director. More universities are offering Teaching Mandarin as a Second Language as a major, says Mr. Xue. And young Chinese are also filling jobs teaching Mandarin at private schools and centers throughout Southeast Asia. Liu Xiaoying, a mainland emigre who runs a Mandarin school in downtown Bangkok, says she's seen an increase. 'When the school started 10 years ago, it was pretty hard to find teachers. Now I've got these young Chinese coming to me,' she says. 'They hear Thailand is a nice, relaxed place, look it up on the Internet, and then decide to come here to check it out.' While there are some communication problems between non-Thai-speaking teachers and their students, the teachers say, the language barrier is typically no worse than for other foreign-language teachers.
Many of these young people view language teaching as a way of seeing the world. Others think foreign experience will make their resumes stand out. Some Mandarin teachers in Thailand use their time abroad to attend graduate school, which would be too competitive to get into at home. And still others are fleeing from the daily grind of an office job. 'Many of my classmates, after we graduated, all they did was just move on to work for a company. I think this sort of work is a lot more interesting because when you're teaching a language, you're teaching culture at the same time,' says Ariel Wang, a 25-year-old from Shanghai who teaches 7-year-old kids in Bangkok.
Unlike their Western counterparts, who might congregate around pubs and other night spots after work, many of these young Chinese language teachers lead austere lives overseas because of their determination to save money and uncertainty about navigating a foreign country on their own. Ms. Tang admits that her social life centers on her fellow teachers. 'Life at home for my friends (in China) does seem richer, more varied,' she says.
Despite their circumspect lives, the teachers do inevitably gain new perspectives about themselves, their culture and their country that they later bring home. Ms. Liu, who taught in Bulgaria, says she had no idea that the Chinese were considered loud until she and her colleagues drew disapproving looks at restaurants in Sofia. 'Many of the shortcomings of our culture and the way we carry ourselves, it's magnified when you go abroad,' she says.
Jin Junfang, who spent a year in Connecticut in 2005, says her family was startled when she announced, after returning from the U.S., that she was going to cut off all financial support to her son when he turned 18. Ms. Jin, 36, says she reached that decision -- in reality a more extreme method of encouraging filial independence than many American parents would consider -- after long discussions about parenting with her host family in Connecticut and her own observations of American teenagers. 'My family and friends find it shocking, but I want my son to be independent,' she says. 'In China, they always teach children to be careful and parents support their children their whole lives. But in America, they teach you to do things by yourself no matter what the risk.'
Some teachers take note of political differences between China and other countries. 'Americans care more about politics than Chinese. They care more about the outside world than the Chinese,' says Zhou Zhichang, a 26-year-old Beijing native who also taught in Connecticut, in her case during the first half of 2006. Ms. Zhou recalls her amazement over a social studies teacher at her Connecticut school who drove six hours to Washington, D.C., in order to take part in a demonstration about Darfur, the war-torn region of Sudan. 'Few Chinese would care about another country,' she says. 'We're wrapped up in our personal matters like getting a job, finding a home and getting married.'
Asked what she thought of the American teacher, Ms. Zhou says he was 'a hero.' But she quickly adds, 'Not that we could do the same thing in China. We're not at that point yet. We're still a developing country.'
就中国而言，它也愿意输出汉语教师，通过推广汉语提升其“软实力”。中国政府在这方面表现出了勃勃雄心，声称到2010年时要使全球各地学汉语的学生数量达到1亿人，目前的数量据估计在4,000万上下。为了实现这个目标，国家汉语国际推广领导小组办公室(National Office for Teaching Chinese, 简称：国家汉办)从2004年起在30多个国家开设了被称为孔子学院(Confucius Institute)的语言文化中心，向海外派遣了2,000多名教师志愿者，其中前往美国和泰国的人数最多。