Chinese lessons

How do you say "economic superpower" in Mandarin?

Published August 28, 2006 9:35PM (EDT)

How shall we know when the balance of economic power between the United States and China has finally tipped? When large numbers of happy-go-lucky expatriate college-age Chinese are hanging out in bars and discos and coffee shops in San Francisco, New York and Dallas, supporting themselves in high style while working as Chinese teachers.

In a Saturday story on the state of Chinese-language instruction in the United States, the Washington Post noted that even though there are clear signs that demand is surging, mostly fueled by parents who want their children prepared for a Mandarin-accented future, the lack of qualified teachers is holding back growth. Much was made of a Bush-funded program to encourage foreign-language instruction in the U.S. that paid for a whopping 10 teachers to come over to the U.S. I was amused by this, because depending on how you define "qualified," I'm pretty sure there is no shortage of available Chinese teachers in the world, and right now, you could probably get 'em cheap.

But not if would-be teachers have to smuggle themselves to the U.S. in shipping containers, or sneak across borders risking death-by-vigilante. Judging from my own experience as an English teacher in Taiwan, the ideal cheap teacher has a smattering of college education, sports at least a middle-class accent, and can relate well to children. Migrant laborers from China's rural hinterlands need not apply. So for the moment, we're a little bit stuck, because there are some bureaucratic obstacles in place that make it hard for Chinese who fit the profile to get a visa to the U.S. and walk into a job teaching 5-year-olds how to pronounce "xiexie."

But where there's a will, there's a way, and real economic hardship in the U.S., along with continued Chinese hypergrowth, could change the status quo. (Although whether Chinese growth would continue in the face of a collapsing U.S. economy is a debatable question.) I know whereof I speak, because for a couple of years in the mid-'80s I was, for all intents and purposes, an illegal immigrant in Taiwan. Through a variety of mechanisms, some legal and some a little less so, I managed to live for two years on a tourist visa while working as an English teacher. And I was far from alone. The government could easily have cracked down on us -- American English teachers stood out like sore thumbs in Taipei in 1986. But the demand for our services was too great.

An influx of Chinese teachers to the U.S., whether legal or illegal, will give a jolt to the standard terms of debate over immigration and teach us a lesson in realpolitik and the mobility of labor. If, as Joseph Stiglitz writes in his soon-to-be published new book, "Making Globalization Work," "Free trade is a substitute for people actually having to move," then language instruction throws a spanner in the works. Native-born speakers are not easily tradable. Either we're going there to learn the language or they're coming here to teach us. So forget about the time-worn terms of the immigration debate. When Central Valley farmers or the long-distance trucking industry or the thoroughbred racing world complain about a lack of qualified workers, the standard answer is: Raise your wages, and you'll get your workers. But that mechanism will break down when the desired service is proficiency in Mandarin.

Young Americans traveling abroad for the first time tend to have an inflated opinion of their own individual value. My years in Taiwan taught me that my birthplace was far more significant than my expertise in Chinese history or facility with a typewriter. My enunciation was worth 400 kuai an hour, which went a long way in Taiwan in 1986. The same may someday be true for Chinese just now being born. So I have to laugh when I hear that the lack of teachers is throttling back the growth of Chinese language instruction in the U.S. When push comes to shove, when there really is demand, the borders will melt, and there will be more than enough Chinese teachers, for everyone.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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