Every so often a thread pops up from some kid wondering if studying Mandarin in college will land him a vaunted investment banking position straight out of undergrad. The answer to this question is, in both China and New York, no. But that doesn’t mean learning Mandarin is a lost cause.
The thing about Chinese is that you need to be balls deep into it from Day 1 (how literally you want to take that is your prerogative). If you’re serious about learning the language though, you should forget about working in New York, because, if you really are that serious, New York isn’t even be on your radar. You can be a ‘China guy’ (or gal), or you can be a ‘New York finance guy’ (or gal), but you can’t be both at the same time.
Once you’ve made the commitment, the most important thing to keep in mind is that no matter how much Mandarin you study, to a Chinese person you will always be an outsider. This is actually your strongest point though.
Moreover, even after years of studying Chinese, your Mandarin will still suck. That’s just the way it is- there are a lot of expats in China that have mediocre language capability, but very few that are really good. So instead of beating your head against the wall on your lack of useful language skills, emphasize that what sets you apart from a local kid is the cross-cultural understanding and flexibility you’ve gained by throwing yourself into a completely foreign environment. Any Chinese student can regurgitate a, but very few can comfortably change gears between the “Chinese” mentality and the “Western” mentality. Many of them won’t even understand the difference at all.
Opinions will vary on how to get this experience, but my advice is this:
Year 1: Home university
Summer: intensive language program at a well-known Chinese university
Year 2: Home university, take a “business in China” class/short study trip, if you university has one
Summer: internship with a random mainland firm (likely a small one)
Year 3: Study at a well-known Chinese university, and ideally a part-time internship with a less random mainland firm
Summer: even less random full-time internship
Year 4: Home university
Because you’ll be taking so much Chinese, you might as well have Chinese as one of your majors in addition to Econ/Finance/Etc. Also be prepared to be paid very little, if anything at all, during your. Don’t expect to get paid much either at a full-time job after graduation either.
This gives you a good mix of classroom Chinese language, classroom business experience, experience at real companies in China, and a long-term stay in China. The point is to be in China or doing something related to China at every step. There’s no guarantee it will work, but it’s a much better idea than convincing yourself that you can be fluent in Mandarin within the next few years.
Naturally this is oversimplified and much easier said than done, but there is no one path to getting into investment banking in China.