Will Studying Mandarin Get Me A Job At The Goldman Sachs?

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 DCF, 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
???
PROFIT

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 internships. 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.

Comments (14)

Best Response
Jun 12, 2012 - 11:23pm
Azimut, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I roughly stuck to your proposed plan above during undergrad and all the banks I interviewed with in final year were extremely interested in my finance internships in China. Being a Caucasian Mandarin speaker with finance experience in China is a great talking point during interviews and allows you to demonstrate a lot of great traits to your prospective employer: dedication, adaptability, work ethic and the ability just to get things done no matter what the circumstances.

In addition to your points above, I'd recommend:

1) Spending as much time studying on exchange in China as you can. Ideally, as I did, use your Chinese to study finance at a top tier university in China. And by that I mean a C9 university: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C9_League

2) Find an internship or internships with a well-known foreign bank in China or big 4. That way you hedge your bets and have a brand name on your resume that is recognised in China and at home (wherever you might be from). In terms of banks, HSBC, Citi, Standard Chartered, BNP Paribas all have big head counts in China and are highly respected if you can't find a position within a BBIB.

3) There's no point learning Chinese without understanding China. Travel, travel, travel. You should be familiar with all the financial hubs: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Chongqing etc. You should also get acquainted with the key drivers for business: take a trip to the wholesale city of Yiwu, go to the annual trade fair in Canton, check out China's home of black market loans in Wenzhou and so on.

4) Keep up to date with the news and pop culture. Just as you would in your home country. Trust me, it will make it much easier to form meaningful connections with your colleagues (during your internship) and your classmates.

5) DO NOT EVER PAY FOR AN INTERNSHIP PLACEMENT. Go there and organise one yourself. These placement companies have no quality control, and the money you spend could put you through a semester of university in China -- giving you adequate time to network and line up your own internship.

To all those seeking to follow this path: good luck and add oil!

Jun 12, 2012 - 11:24pm
AstonMartin, what's your opinion? Comment below:

How would a caucasian be able to compete against a lot of the Chinese Americans who speak fluent English and are years ahead in Chinese. Or the foreigners who speak fluent Chinese and have been learning English since first grade?

Jun 12, 2012 - 11:38pm
Azimut, what's your opinion? Comment below:

AstonMartin, it's really a matter of hard work. If you take in the mentality that you aim to speak Chinese better than Mainland Chinese do and keep up the work for long enough, you will succeed.

You may be surprised to learn that many Overseas Chinese experience an element of culture shock in going to China and they tend to have quite poor Chinese (particularly reading and writing), compared with someone who has attended university in China. It is also difficult for Overseas Chinese in that local Mainland Chinese expect them to speak perfect Chinese and are unimpressed if they don't.

Jun 12, 2012 - 11:41pm
TheBigBambino, what's your opinion? Comment below:

IMO it's not the language that helps you land the job as much as it is the cultural understanding. There is without a doubt a huge benefit to speaking chinese but like those above me have said, you rarely will be good enough. I worked at an investment bank in India and I realized quickly I became valued for my ability to look at something from a western perspective while understanding the Indian business from it's management's cultural standpoints.

Can't say I have first hand experience with China however -- I just took 2 semesters in school. I'm really basing my beliefs off of my experience working in West Africa and India PE/IB.

MD's love american home grown guys who are fun and easy to be around but still know what they're talking about in a global and regional context outside of the US. It helps that you can pitch a South-East asian company but still know how to act at the weekend BBQ with your boss - something the foreign guys usually don't get IMO.

I also worked for a guy that did Cornell's Falcon program - http://lrc.cornell.edu/falcon/About - He did 6 months at Cornell then 6 months at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Said he loved it.

"If you want to succeed in this life, you need to understand that duty comes before rights and that responsibility precedes opportunity."
  • 4
Jun 13, 2012 - 12:13am
chungus_1999, what's your opinion? Comment below:

AstonMartin, from what I've seen overseas Chinese are viewed the same as a Caucasian: outsiders. And likely even higher expectations for language capability, etc., because they are "Chinese" in the eyes of a mainlander, and therefore should act/talk/walk/think/speak like one.

Also, +1 to Azimut's recommendations. As for staying up on news and pop culture, my favorites are:

WSJ China Real Time ReportchinaSMACKChina Daily - more or less a mouthpiece for the Party (like all newspapers in China), but the nationalist rhetoric is toned down a bit.

Jun 13, 2012 - 1:05am
lax88, what's your opinion? Comment below:

from what i've seen out of recruiting, the window of opportunity for foreigners to work in china has really closed. china has enough western educated natives returning to the country to satisfy their needs.

i was lucky to secure a position in the mainland on expat terms with an american company. i'm worried about my language skills, but we'll see where it goes. my job will be conducted in english.

i was wondering if anyone can recommend any good online streams (other than soap operas) that have both english and chinese subtitles - something i can watch daily to improve my chinese.

Jun 13, 2012 - 1:15am
G Spread, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I've been taking casual Chinese courses for a few months now. To get the basics of the spoken language down (i.e., learn the 500 most used words and be able to say and understand many basic sentences) is actually not THAT hard, seeing as the grammar is very basic, but to normally converse with a native Chinese person takes years and years of rigorous practice. They speak so damn fast. Add in all the minor regional dialects and being proficient becomes even more difficult. I'd say there's no point in even bothering to learn Chinese beyond the basics... either way there are millions of Chinese Americans who can speak better than you and will impress your interviewer more, but if you're truly that passionate about the culture, go for it.

  • 1
Jun 13, 2012 - 1:40am
PEinAsia, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I've been studying Chinese intensively for maybe 5 years now (incl Fudan Uni. language courses, intensive courses at my home uni, worked in a PE fund in Shanghai for 5 months, i travel to china very often, etc.).

I have had a mainland chinese girlfriend for the past 3 years.

My chinese is better than that of most chinese singaporeans (i live in singapore).

However, i've been looking for positions in Hong Kong for the past year and have not had any real opportunities other than those that are based in HK, but focused on SE Asia.

Almost all roles are only for mainland chinese or HKers who are entirely fluent in Mandarin.

If you are a westerner, it will be very very challenging for you to find a top job if you are not ENTIRELY FLUENT (like a native PRC) in chinese.

This is frustrating for me. Still, i am dedicated and love the language and the culture, so i have decided to leave my current IB job, pack up, and go to Hong Kong anyways and if nothing else, use my time there to continue to study chinese intensively while figuring things out. I will be moving there in early september.

Go East, Young Man
  • 3
Jun 13, 2012 - 6:27am
KingEastwood, what's your opinion? Comment below:

The 4 year schedule OP outlined is not nearly enough to get you close enough to an even acceptable level of Mandarin proficiency. I've met several of such ppl and their Chinese just sucks/sounds weird but they still think they are the shit and on their resumes they write they are fluent/business proficient. (Problem here is that Chinese always tell you how good u are even though u actually suck)

hell, last weekend at my graduation ceremony (in Taiwan) a guy who studied Chinese in undergrad in the US and his Master here was holding a speech and my classmates told me that I should go up there instead. If u wanna learn Chinese don't waste any time learning it in ur home country just do ur degree (business or whatever) at a university in China, e.g. Beijing.

Jun 13, 2012 - 9:23am
PEinAsia, what's your opinion? Comment below:
KingEastwood:
The 4 year schedule OP outlined is not nearly enough to get you close enough to an even acceptable level of Mandarin proficiency.
This depends on what "acceptable" is. Acceptable for a PE/IB job in Beijing? probably not acceptable. however, if you study it seriously and intensively for 4 years, you should be on very good footing.
KingEastwood:
If u wanna learn Chinese don't waste any time learning it in ur home country just do ur degree (business or whatever) at a university in China, e.g. Beijing.
I also dissagree with this. Firstly, if you go to China to study business or something other than the language itself, you will not improve much. I have talked to foreigners at CEIBS (Chinese Euro Business School) who went into the MBA program with a similar level of mandarin as they came out with because the time is not dedicated to the langauge. Secondly, some universities in the US offer very good language programs and when combined with in-China experience prepare you very well. When i was in school (georgetown), i hardly did anything else except study chinese because the classes were so intensive.

However, i do agree with the over-arching comment that native fluency is essential if you want to do serious business in China, and that will take more than 4 years and quite a lot of in-country time to get a hold of.

Go East, Young Man
  • 3
Jun 13, 2012 - 10:40am
KingEastwood, what's your opinion? Comment below:
Asia_i_Banker:
KingEastwood:
The 4 year schedule OP outlined is not nearly enough to get you close enough to an even acceptable level of Mandarin proficiency.
This depends on what "acceptable" is. Acceptable for a PE/IB job in Beijing? probably not acceptable. however, if you study it seriously and intensively for 4 years, you should be on very good footing.

Yeah, by acceptable I meant actually being able to read financial statements, give business presentations etc., which should be the point if one wants to have at least the slightest chance of competing with local graduates. As you mentioned understanding the local culture is very important (and I also believe that having this cross-cultural understanding is a huge asset) but pre-requisites for that are actually having lots of local friends, for which you a) need to stay in China for a longer period than 6-12 months and b) have an adequate level of Chinese that they let you into their circle & you can have proper conversations.

Asia_i_Banker:
KingEastwood:
If u wanna learn Chinese don't waste any time learning it in ur home country just do ur degree (business or whatever) at a university in China, e.g. Beijing.
I also dissagree with this. Firstly, if you go to China to study business or something other than the language itself, you will not improve much. I have talked to foreigners at CEIBS (Chinese Euro Business School) who went into the MBA program with a similar level of mandarin as they came out with because the time is not dedicated to the langauge.

First of all, I believe classes at CEIBS are instructed in English if I'm not wrong, so obviously there's not a lot of improvement since you are not forced to use Chinese. Furthermore, I was actually referring to doing an undergrad degree in China, which then would be instructed in Chinese (mostly still with English textbooks though, so no worries), thus requiring four years of doing your degree as well as acquiring the language competencies to pass the exams and generally survive. This obviously requires a certain amount of previous Chinese knowledge, but in my opinion is a far more efficient way if one wants to work in China, as you'll also have a better opportunity to network (especially when at Beijing University).

Jun 13, 2012 - 10:36pm
FlakieBear, what's your opinion? Comment below:

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