Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

You majored in Mandarin, fulfilled your one or two years of teaching English in China, and now you’re back in the US thinking, “Now what?” Do you fall back on your second major and get an unrelated job like everyone else in your graduating class, relegating this skill you cultivated for years to a mere hobby? If that sounds as unappealing to you as it did to me, I have some advice. Chinese skills are not the golden ticket to job-land as many non-Chinese-speakers seem to think, but if you are persistent and creative, you can find a way to use your knowledge of China’s language and culture to your advantage. The steps below helped me stand out in the first two jobs I held as a young professional, and were the key to being hired for my first permanent full-time job.

Step 1: Bring it up!
If you look like me (i.e. no Asian heritage) no one will know you speak Chinese until you tell them. When networking, I usually work it into conversation within the first few minutes. Often, I mention that I am new to the area, prompting the question of where I lived before, to which I answer, “China.” This unexpected response elicits questions and makes for an interesting and memorable exchange. If the conversation doesn’t go in that direction but we are discussing our backgrounds and career goals, I simply say outright that I majored in Chinese and am looking for opportunities with an international component where I can put my background to use.

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Step 2: Find supervisors who value your skills; they will find a way to put them to use.
I have the job I have today because my boss searched for someone with administrative experience who could speak Chinese. Fortunately, he saw my resume with language skills featured front and center, despite suggestions from resume coaches that I tuck them in below my work experience. Because I was just starting out in the workforce and because I wanted a job founded on my Chinese ability, I chose to emphasize that skill and it payed off. My boss was intentionally looking for a Chinese-speaking assistant, so he already had some ideas for putting my skills to use.

At my previous temp job, too, my superiors went out of their way to put my Chinese to work. I was at the international services office of a university that valued diversity and making its foreign attendees feel welcome. I was encouraged to communicate with international students (the majority of whom were from China) in their native language and was even give some time on the microphone at orientation to do so.

Step 3: Demonstrate your skill.
Even if (especially if) your supervisor doesn’t understand Chinese, they will be impressed to hear your talent in action. During the interview for my current job, the interviewees asked me to say a few words in Chinese. I glibly rattled off a full self-introduction of the type I was used to giving as my school’s representative foreign teacher in China. I then translated my words for their benefit, though they could already tell that I spoke confidently, thoughtfully, and fluidly, which is all they needed to know.

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Step 4: Actively seek out opportunities to use your Chinese
Even with supportive supervisors, these opportunities won’t always be handed to you. You must be creative about seeking them out or creating them yourself, even it is just something small. Instances where I have used Chinese at work include: giving coworkers an introduction to pronouncing Chinese names, translating Chinese financial documents into English, translating news articles and marketing materials into Chinese, translating formal business email exchanges in both directions, giving short speeches, shmoozing with Chinese potential clients at industry conferences, researching Chinese social media options for US businesses, etc. There are so many different ways in which Chinese can be valuable in the office. Pair your language ability with your other strengths, be they research, marketing, sociability, or whatever else to find useful tasks at which you will excel.

The desire to only use your Chinese when you know you can execute it perfectly will hold you back if you let it

Step 5: Go beyond your comfort zone.
When my boss first asked me to translate a formal marketing email into Chinese, I felt a little out of my depth. This email would be the clients’ first impression of my firm and I hadn’t had much contact with formal written Chinese since early college; everything I used during my past year in Changzhou was colloquial, mostly casual. I was only just starting to self-study business Chinese, which seems to have its own set of mannerisms and set expressions. Nevertheless, I gathered my resources and courage and set to it. I obtained a “cheat sheet” of common email opening and closing phrases from a friend, brought my two newly-purchased Chinese-English law dictionaries into the office, and did my best.

While there might be some mistakes and awkward wording, the gist would be communicated and the deference for the client’s language would be appreciated. Sure enough, several potential clients responded and I translated back and forth complex emails filled with legalese and negotiations, gaining more certainty with each exchange. I took note of how my clients wrote, what terms they used for certain industry concepts, and wrote those down to utilize in my own translations later. The desire to only use your Chinese when you know you can execute it perfectly will hold you back if you let it. The only way to move up to the next level of language ability is to reach for it, to practice it over and over until you sit there comfortably and can start looking up towards the next rung.

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While I still grimace every time I hear “You speak Chinese? You’ll have no problem finding a job!” I’ve found that it’s not impossible to forge a career path centered on my chosen field of study. There are many industries where Chinese can come into play, including international education, immigration, law, or any enterprise with a global scale or that attracts Chinese clients or investors. Don’t give up on your passion and never stop using it, for practice is essential for keeping your skills honed. You’ll never know when you might need them.

Carly O'Connell

Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.