Does speaking Mandarin as a mixed/non-Chinese person help with recruiting?

My father worked at the HK CS office for 15 years, spoke fluent cantonese and ok mandarin, raised me to speak it as well. He's a 100% white guy raised in the US but attributes lots of success to his proficiency in asian languages (served a mormon mission in Hong Kong), which I don't doubt was useful in the time he was working 1990s to late 2000s. However a director at Lazard spoke at my university recently and he said that now speaking Chinese is entirely useless for getting a IB career in Chinese speaking countries/offices unless you're Asian as you'll be seen as the token white guy and an outsider regardless of how well you speak Chinese. My dad entirely disagrees with this, but I'm curious what other people think since my dads been retired since the crisis. 

Comments (13)

  • Associate 1 in IB - Gen
2mo 

Take this with a pinch of salt as I moved from Asia to Europe when I was a kid. I see where the Lazard director is coming from, while many "foreign" Chinese speakers can speak Mandarin / Cantonese close to native level, quite often there are certain subtle cultural things that they don't get. Hence the communications with locals often tend to only stay on surface level without being able to form a deeper connection. IB is a people business at the end of the day, and I'm sure you know that "guanxi" i.e. your network and building relationships is ever so important in Chinese speaking regions.

However, that's not to say you won't make it or have any advantage in recruiting in Chinese speaking regions. I would think it's quite the opposite. 1) At a junior level, the guanxi aspect matters to lesser extent and your language skills can only be a plus (still very rare to see a "foreigner" speaking good Chinese); 2) if you can get the cultural aspects of things then likely you will progress much quicker. I have seen people who became very savvy in navigating the Asian business culture that are very successful in their careers.

Something I've seen that may help is that don't see yourself as the white guy who speaks Chinese and don't think of it as your main advantage or selling point. Become competitive in your own right and your language skills will only help you get further.

Good luck.

2mo 
stevedujour, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I speak "ok" level Mandarin despite having a European background because I lived and studied in Beijing. Helps to score some points with the Chinese colleagues if you really drop a banger proverb here and again. Also some ideas/ jokes just better expressed in Mandarin.

Career-wise I doubt this would ever really help because, as others have already mentioned, cultural nuances are very subtle and in my view many Chinese in HK/ SH/ BJ who work in IB/ law/ audit were either educated abroad or speak quite good English and won't be very keen to speak with you in Chinese unless you're very very native-level, and even then would just prefer to speak English with a foreigner.

All that said, for whatever reason it does carry a big signaling value. People tend to be very impressed because it is widely believed that Chinese is very difficult (debatable but whatever) and it must say something about you as a person if you put in all the grueling hours of memorizing thousands of characters, etc. For many Westerners who know little about China or Chinese, saying you speak Chinese will automatically make them peg you as super smart, driven, or both. (not taking a view on whether this is deserved or not, but that's how it is).

  • 3
  • Analyst 1 in IB - Gen
2mo 

It would be very challenging for you to recruit in HK, even if you speak Chinese. Massive respect to you for learning it though, as it's a really challenging language to pick up. However, there's essentially no real reason for HK banks to hire you over a mainland Chinese candidate most of the time, as there are just many candidates out there who are proficient / native in both English and Chinese and have very competitive profiles that would match or even exceed your own. It's the same idea why you mostly just see Germans in Frankfurt offices and French people in Paris offices - there's just a sufficiently large local talent pool to recruit from (this is especially so for HK considering how many mainland Chinese people out there are gunning for these roles).

As a general anecdote, there's basically no non-Asian junior on my floor at my bank in HK (only Indians who cover India deals and Chinese who cover the rest of the region). It's much more diverse at the senior level though, though those guys usually lateral over to HK after starting out overseas.

  • 2
Most Helpful
2mo 
Synergy_or_Syzygy, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I moved from the USA and worked in Mainland China as a (white guy) "expat" from 22 y.o. to 27 y.o. in a professional setting (Big 4 consulting arm). The way I see Chinese language in Greater China is "necessary but not sufficient."

Will it help you get the job? I don't know. Still going to be extremely tough regardless. I leveraged connections to get both jobs I had in China.

I understand where the jaded Lazard Director is coming from, but that's a defeatist attitude that is good advice for the majority, but not for those that want to be "great," which is where your dad's perspective comes in. Chinese is very useful for making friends, building trust with coworkers, finding dates, immersing in the local community, etc. And if you get really good then yes, client / business development, which you will always have to do with a trusted partner, for which you will need language skills.

If you want to get your foot in the door in Asia, you have to forge your own path, jam your foot in the door, pry it open with a crowbar, and start downing rice wine. It's extremely difficult but very worthwhile for those who can make it work.

EDIT: To be clear, I think that my path is difficult to replicate, but if you find yourself on secondment or have an opportunity to transfer out to an Asian regional office, I wholeheartedly encourage you to learn the language. While of course you'll never be at native level or "considered" as a native, the bonus points that language ability provides are tremendous -- at least in places like Mainland China and Japan where English at a professional writing/research level is still very scarce. In HK/SG where there are many native English speakers, I can't attest to directly. In Mainland China it opens up an entirely new world.

Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.
  • 8
  • 1
  • Intern in IB - Cov
1mo 

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  • 2
2mo 
WanderingWanchai, what's your opinion? Comment below:

You need to native or near native Chinese proficiency if based in HK and doing deals within the mainland.

Can you read simplified and be able to read a financial statement and/or translate said statement back and forth between CN/EN?

If not, there is little to no value add you bring as a junior as there are a plethora young smart students in China that are just waiting for a chance to work in banking out of the top schools in the mainland.

1mo 
203Banker, what's your opinion? Comment below:
[Comment removed by mod team]
1mo 
203Banker, what's your opinion? Comment below:

This is the correct answer.  Unless you're at a native level, it's superfluous.  Your competition will be native speakers and your clients will be native speakers.  Beyond the language, there's also a lifetime of cultural references you won't relate to / understand.  

It's a nice novelty and might help marginally, but you'll still be a foreigner/transplant.  

Even if you work in the US trying to do cross border deals, there are plenty of native speakers of just about every language. 

I think the days of parachuting in expats to provide expertise is long gone.  Hyper specialization wins the day.  

Source: Multiple years of BB expat experience in Asia 

1mo 
floppy dog, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Having language skills is always a help, even if it does not directly apply to your employment.  Study the language if you want to, or don't.

Specifically for Hong Kong you will need to learn Cantonese.  I know people there speak Mandarin and other languages, but if you really want to integrate you will need strong Cantonese skills.

1mo 
WanderingWanchai, what's your opinion? Comment below:

You don't need to know cantonese in HK in professional settting, you need to know mandarin and be at native level proficiency. There are only a handul of HK coverage bankers covering the few conglomerates that raise a few bonds a year but generally speaking all activity going forward (pending end of zero covid) will be in mainland.

Canto is helpful for everyday life but has little value to being a banker and servicing prc clients, if anything many HK bankers born and raised in HK that have a HK accent when speaking mandarin can be looked down upon.

1mo 
WestCoastChimp4521, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I wouldn't stay if I were you; but I also wouldn't quit.  Just start recruiting hard and when folks ask 'why' tell them the offer isn't what was advertised / agreed to and you want to get into as high-quality a learning experience as possible.

1mo 
qwertyiuop, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I did my SA in Hong Kong IB this past summer as a white person, feel free to DM I can answer some questions about recruiting etc.

  • Intern in IB - Cov
1mo 

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