So, apparently Mark Zuckerberg can speak some Chinese. I first learned of this a few nights ago when, before I'd even had a chance to seek out evidence of Zuckerberg responding to questions in Mandarin, I found myself on social media flooded by wave after wave of brightly lit noise, all feverishly declaring the Facebook CEO's brilliant fluency in my mother tongue. By the time I tracked down video of the Q&A session, hosted by Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, the hype over Zuckerberg's Chinese language skills had grown so strong that I expected to click 'play' and witness him kicking freestyle raps in Mandarin and rhyming clever insults about Jack Ma.
There was a time, and it was not so long ago, where any white man speaking Mandarin would have been received in China as if he was a mystical figure. It didn't matter if it only happened to be, say, a chubby kid from Iowa who was drawn to Chinese culture by a disturbingly intense obsession with dumplings -- so long as he could form somewhat complete Chinese sentences, the locals would marvel at the existence of this plump magical creature and enshrine him in warm, golden admiration. Let us momentarily juxtapose this with circumstances in America, where in many places even a thin layer of accent upon the surface of your English may cause you to be ridiculed or ostracized.
In Mandarin Chinese, there is an expression kan de qi (pronounced: kahn duh chee), that roughly translates to "can see value in." It signifies when one person is able to identify worthiness in another person. In any country of the world, when a foreigner learns your language, it is a foundational gesture that he or she can kan de qi your nation and its culture. When a foreigner learns the Chinese language, it inherently says to the Chinese, "I value your people, your land, your way of life. Enough so that I would work to connect with you in the manner that is most convenient and natural for you." So when Mark Zuckerberg spoke in Mandarin, no matter how deformed his tones, no matter how American (and non-Chinese) his phrasing of thoughts, no matter how obviously rehearsed the Q&A interactions, the most important communication was embodied in Mr. Zuckerberg's effort itself: that he, one of America's most important business and technology figures, can kan de qi the people of China.
Much of the Western world interprets China through feelings of anxiety or fear as a result of the nation's recent and historically unprecedented rate of global rise. Ask Americans what they think of China and in their answers you will likely find heavy traces of negativity or paranoia. "The Chinese are taking over." "The Chinese own us." "The Chinese made Jay-Z cheat on Beyonce". But the truth is that the Chinese still very much hunger for validation in the eyes of the West; and of the Western countries, the whole world still cares the most about what America thinks, and what America watches, and what America wears ... The American mainstream media uses a rather predictable rotation of storylines to portray China - China's economy, China's problems, China's growth, China's problems, China's army, China's problems ... but the often omitted story, one that would be very meaningful for Americans to hear, tells of the great percentage of Chinese who have feelings of high admiration for American people, American culture, and American values. One must first grasp this Chinese respect for America, in order to properly weigh the significance of Zuckerberg's gesture.
But it would be irresponsible to not mention the underlying motivations behind Zuckerberg's actions: that the Facebook CEO's will to speak Mandarin is most certainly a matter of courting the Chinese in the name of business interests. There are noticeable parallels to the practice of certain Western males who learn Asian languages or study Asian cultures because it is useful to their pursuit of Asian women (this is a very common scenario, and generally a byproduct of an Asian fetish): their cultural education, though genuine in many respects, is ultimately driven by self-interest and a commodification of the target culture. "Yo China. Heyyyy girl. You lookin' real good tonight -- real exotic like. Yeahhh. Guess what? I got a surprise for you, girl. I... have learned your language [wrinkles lips]. Yup, that's right, girl. Listen to me count to ten real quick and then name some farm animals. Now you know that's sexy. Yeahhh [rubs hands]. Maybe a little later we could go back to your place and you could let me get a piece of that market share?"
Nonetheless, Zuckerberg's gesture is overall a very real source of positive sentiment for Chinese people, and an act that might also inspire even more Americans to study Mandarin. Perhaps one of modern society's clearest embodiments of Yin and Yang is this relationship found within capitalism that links calculating self-interest and collective cultural progress (i.e. massive corporate machines giving to charity and funding humanitarian efforts, banks sponsoring arts and culture programs... ). In Zuckerberg's quest to tap China's market for his own material gain, he also does a substantial service for US-China relations.
It's quite unfortunate that media coverage of Zuckerberg's Q&A at Tsinghua consistently ignored an opportunity to discuss the intricately evolving relationship between the US and China, opting instead to apply its power to wax and shine the CEO's public image. Especially so because the cultural significance of Zuckerberg's effort was the only truly valuable part. If we evaluate his performance from a technical perspective alone, all we have is an American who has learned to communicate in Mandarin at a below average level. To put things in perspective, there exist countless junior high students across the world who speak English as a foreign language better than Mark Zuckerberg speaks Mandarin Chinese. There are thousands upon thousands of immigrants in America -- working in the kitchens of American restaurants, sweating on American construction sites, serving as caretakers to American children -- who must speak English as a foreign language better than Zuckerberg speaks Mandarin simply to keep their families from starving. What does it say about our culture here, that we would glorify someone for the mediocre execution of a task that innumerable people across the world perform, instinctively and proficiently, on a daily basis?
Here in the United States we love to elevate celebrity individuals above all others and make their personal stories the centerpieces of our greater narrative, but the true significance of Mark Zuckerberg's Mandarin has little to do with the Facebook CEO's mental prowess. Rather, the real vision to behold in all of this is the image of a world where other nations are catching up to the United States, and as a result, the United States must now also in its own way catch up to other nations, by learning how to kan de qi the rest of the world. Mark Zuckerberg's ability to communicate with a foreign people in their own language should not be seen as a remarkable feat deserving of praise, but should instead become as a basic expectation for American citizens in order to build the strongest possible American future: that all Americans should strive for the aptitude and the openness to engage other nations on their own terms, the way that other nations have so unquestioningly and for so many years engaged America on her terms.