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New Post 13.07.2010 12:18
831 posts

Why we all need to learn Mandarin in New Zealand 

Why we all need to learn Mandarin in New Zealand
learn mandarin chinese language

 Teaching assistant Jane Chen works with a Westlake Boys' High School Mandarin Chinese language class.

Dave Dobbyn's Welcome Home song and video is one of the best signposts of how New Zealand has changed over the last decade.

It celebrates a more open, more inclusive New Zealand that looks outward more than it looks inward. It has a generosity of spirit that I think is one of New Zealand's best national attributes in the new millennium.

I love Dave Dobbyn's music, but love even more how this song and the video that went with it seemed to capture the cultural mood of the nation in the late 2000s.

I remember seeing how Dobbyn was even asked to sing it at the opening of the New Zealand war memorial in Hyde Park in London in 2006, welcoming home those who had fallen overseas. It transcended generations and seemed to bring people together. It was the anti-Winston and I loved it for that.

It spoke of a new New Zealand, after the immigration surge in the wake of 9/11, after the nuclear-free policy, after the Springbok tour, and after the flowering of Maori and Pacific Island cultures in the 1980s and 1990s.

The video simply showed a range of new immigrants to New Zealand, and mostly to Auckland. It had a American golfer, some Indian dairy owners, a Pacific Islander, a Maori cultural group, an Indian bank teller, an Aussie forklift driver and even a South African family standing proudly in front of their Toyota Camry.

But it seemed to me to be missing something important. It had no Chinese faces. There was a fleeting glimpse of a martial arts group, but there was no Chinese family or Chinese event.

This seemed strange to me at the time when the video came out in 2006 and even more so as time has passed.

I live in Epsom where more than a third of the kids at my daughter's school are Chinese. More than half of the families on our street are Chinese. In 2006 the New Zealand census showed we had 147,570 Chinese people living in New Zealand, 78,117 of whom were born in mainland China. At least 100,000 spoke Mandarin back in 2006 and that number is set to double by 2026.

There's good research here from AsiaNZ on these demographic projections out to 2026, which would see our Asian population rise to nearly 900,000 and surpass our Maori population. Are we ready for that?

Mandarin is already our third most spoken language after English and Maori, with the latest estimates of the number of Maori speakers at around 157.000.

I'm sure it was not deliberate on Dave Dobbyn's part that he left out New Zealand's Chinese faces. A pure oversight or logistical issue. But it did remind me that New Zealand sometimes talks a good game about engaging with China and Chinese New Zealanders, but doesn't often actually include or celebrate this part of our nation in a public way.

We have two Chinese New Zealand MPs, Raymond Huo and Pansy Wong, but we don't have Chinese faces on our television. There is no Mandarin spoken on National Radio or National Television. Yet Mandarin is set to become our second most spoken language within 15 years. The free Chinese language newspapers are among the most printed in Auckland and Skykiwi.com is one of most popular local websites. Why isn't this part of our mainstream?

China is already our second largest trading partner after Australia. We exported NZ$4 billion to China in the year to May, more than double that exported in calender 2008. It is our second largest buyer of exports and our second largest provider of imports. Australia is our largest on both counts. Interestingly, imports from China have risen just 7% to around NZ$6 billion over the last two years while exports have doubled.

Yet, as John Key pointed out over the weekend in his Q+A interview on TVNZ, the number of our students learning Mandarin has only just surpassed the number learning Latin.

Why is it cultural and business New Zealand is so far behind trading New Zealand?

Where is our strategy on truly engaging with China in what will no doubt be the Chinese century?

John Key has admirably started the conversation with his comments about Mandarin and his call to double two way trade to NZ$20 billion within five years.

But this level of trade is a quantum leap again. For example, our two way trade with Australia is only NZ$17 billion a year at the moment.

Such a jump would require New Zealanders across the business, political and cultural spectrum to get serious about China.

It would mean Chinese language television, correspondents based in China, mass Chinese language learning and a much deeper understanding of how China works. It would require New Zealanders broadly, including pakeha, Maori and Pacific Island New Zealanders, to really welcome home the 400,000 or so Chinese New Zealanders who will live here by 2026.

We should start with a serious debate about our strategy for engaging with China. Some basic questions have to be asked.

Should most New Zealand children be learning Mandarin in the same way that most European children learn English?

Should we encourage Chinese investment in New Zealand land and companies here?

How would we feel if a Chinese state owned construction company or food company bid for a major project or a major farming group here?

Should we have a Chinese language quota on television?

Should our first thoughts about our political relations with China always be about human rights and democracy? Or should our first priority be trade?

Should we be strengthening our defence and diplomatic links with China at the expense of links with America?

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