Do we need to worry if it does? I love Chinese food and have always been interested in Chinese culture.
Based on my own experiences abroad, here are my observations:
Warning – I despise generalisations and stereotypes. Still, this post is full of them! Apologies if anyone takes offence.
1. Will Chinese be the world’s main language in a few years?
Right now, I’d say that English is the most useful language to speak while travelling. It doesn’t matter where you go, you can usually find at least one person who knows a little English, (or maybe it should be Spanish in South America, or French since there are always so many French travellers around…).
I’m not sure how you’d get by if you only spoke Chinese, or Russian, or Portuguese. You could probably get by, (as we did in China despite not being able to speak any Chinese), but it would be harder than it would be if you knew a bit of English.
While travelling over the last few years, it’s been interesting to see more and more Chinese people travelling abroad. (Or, nothing has changed and I’m merely becoming increasingly conscious of Chinese people, (confirmation bias…)).
It made me think. Given that China is the most populated country on the planet, if this continues, and more and more Chinese people are travelling, I wonder how long it will be before Chinese replaces English as the default second language on menus and signs. I saw this happening in a few places in Japan, and Indonesia this year, and Thailand the year before.
I wonder whether we will all be learning Chinese in order to travel, or to converse with people who speak a different language to our own, at some point.
2. More hotels and tourism focusing exclusively on Chinese tourists
Wages in China have risen steadily over the years giving more and more Chinese people the ability to travel abroad.
At this stage, from what I encountered, the bulk of middle class Chinese tourists appear to prefer bus tours where they can travel in the relative safety of a Chinese guide, and don’t have the hassle of booking accommodation and arranging transport themselves.
This was evident in Bali where huge hotels have been built in the middle of nowhere to cater to the Chinese market, (at a huge cost to the environment). As these Chinese tourists are ferried everywhere in a bus and don’t tend to be too adventurous when eating out, they don’t mind not being near restaurants or other tourist attractions.
This will change as more and more local people learn Chinese, which will help Chinese people feel comfortable venturing further afield, and away from the mass market hotels and experiences.
3. Are Chinese tour groups the new Brits abroad?
Thailand issued a good behaviour manual for Chinese tourists last year, apparently because so many locals were being upset by Chinese tourists. The locals we talked to in Japan and Bali weren’t too fond of these Chinese tour groups either. Locals considered them loud and obnoxious. They were frustrated by the limited opportunity to make money and the constraints of the tour schedules.
Restaurants for these groups are usually pre-selected, often serving Chinese food, and limited to venues with the capacity to seat 50+ people. Locals deplored the tendency of these groups to avoid seeking out traditional establishments, or independent experiences where they would have to converse or step outside of their comfort zones without their guide.
The Chinese groups we met were full of excited people enjoying themselves. They were loud and brash, excitedly pushing to the front of whatever it was they were trying to see, lacking decorum and respect for local or religious customs.
In some ways, the groups of Chinese tourists we encountered reminded me of English tour groups in Spain or Italy in the seventies/eighties. Even now, Brits abroad don’t have the best reputations….
Stereotypically, Brits were known for rarely venturing off the beaten path, focusing on getting drunk on sangria in “English” pubs, offending local people, and sticking to pizza and chips as opposed to any authentic cuisine. (I know, as these were/are the type vacations that most of my family went/go on…). The locals we spoke to complained about similar traits in the Chinese tour groups.
4. The end of riping-off tourists so easily?
The other thing that would frustrate locals in, for example Bali or Thailand, was the propensity of Chinese, and Indian people to haggle.
Apparently, a lot of Chinese tourists don’t automatically tip like most Americans or British people might do. Bartering is a way of life for many people in China and India – it’s natural for them to act the same abroad. Having relatively less wealth than a British or American tourist may have, many are less accepting of the rip off prices that taxi drivers and locals have charged Westerners for years.
Locals used to dealing with fairly polite and relatively wealthy Westerners, are now dealing with bus loads of experienced Chinese and Indian barterers, some of whom they can’t communicate with properly.
I remember one Indonesian taxi driver lamenting about the increase of Indian business and the decrease of Australians. He waxed lyrically about the times when his Australian passengers had shared cigarettes and drinks with him, and invited him to join them for meals.
White guilt might play a part in this dynamic given the atrocities inflicted on many visiting countries in the past. I also know many who feel awkward about having people work for them for not much money. I don’t know many British or American people who have their own chauffeurs for example. Of course, in India, it isn’t uncommon for many middle/upper class people to have their own staff. They are used to having people work for them.
5. Chinese commerce abroad
Ever since travelling through Africa from Kigali to Cape Town, I was intrigued by the Chinese presence in Africa. How Chinese companies, (or the Chinese government – no one ever knew for sure), were building roads and taking over mines and agricultural land. Chinese signs and trucks were ubiquitous. I saw the same in Burma, as well as Laos.
Some locals we spoke to were pleased. They believed that the Chinese were building good quality roads, provided jobs and much needed improvement to infrastructure, that would never be built otherwise.
Others expressed concern about the environmental and political implications of letting the Chinese dominate in this way. They also questioned the quality of what was being built, and the number of jobs, given that so much of the labour force was made up of Chinese people from China.
6. What other Chinese customs will we be adopting?
Martin Jaques in When China Rules the World argues how historically, the world’s dominating language, culture and customs has been linked to economic power. Consider the world’s main language and customs during the British Empire for example, or when the USA was the world’s biggest economic power.
Some people believe that as China’s economic power grows, the country will become increasingly Westernised, more open to democracy, Western ways of living and doing business.
Jaques disagrees. He believes that the main reason that Western customs and the English language dominate the world today is because they are the customs, culture and language held by the main economic powers of the last century. He argues that as China’s economic power grows, so will it’s cultural power, and the world will become increasingly Chinese in its outlook and the way it does business.
It’s an interesting idea. If Jaques is right, I wonder what other Chinese customs we will start adopting.
7. Will We All Have Chinese Names?
At the moment, when I’ve done business or visited people in China, the Chinese people I’ve dealt with have usually given themselves an English name – John or Sarah, for example.
If Chinese becomes the world’s main business language, I wonder whether we’ll be giving ourselves Chinese names in the future? I wonder what mine will be?