Learning Mandarin with Mr and Mrs Mehta

A class in progress at Inchin Closer, which holds Mandarin classes for people who have or seek business links with China. Courtesy Inchin Closer
15 July, 2014

On a Sunday afternoon in Mumbai, Shemal Gandhi sat on a bench meant for a 13-year-old with a textbook on his lap and his head in his hands. He flipped the book open to the tenth section and read silently to himself about what a fictional Rahul Mehta had got up to in China.

After an office meeting, Mr Mehta went to his hotel in Huangzhou, the capital of the Zhejiang province in eastern China. He switched on the TV to watch the news but it was not working. Mrs. Mehta called the reception to get it fixed.

Next, Gandhi read snippets of conversation aloud, but not so loud as to disturb the other students in the classroom, who were all engaged in self study.

Wèi?” he said—a Mandarin telephone greeting, attributed to the hotel receptionist in the textbook. Gandhi then replied with Mrs Mehta’s lines, speaking slowly as he attempted to get the accent and intonation right.  “Wèi? Nǐhǎo! Wǒfángjiān de diànshìjīhuàile”—hello, the TV in my room is broken.

Twenty-four-year-old Gandhi, a diamond trader, was in classroom 9A of the St Stanislaus High School in Bandra with eight other lawyers, engineers and IT entrepreneurs, all learning to speak Mandarin. Their guides in their textbook were Rahul and Pooja Mehta, a fictional Gujarati couple, who took them through China as they visited silk factories, dined with clients and struck deals.

“The market for diamonds in China is so vast that every other small trader in Surat has an office there,” Gandhi said when I spoke to him in the course of his class. “To do business, Mandarin is a must. I have to be serious.”

Leading the students was 32-year-old Nazia Vasi, the founder of Inchin Closer, the India–China language and business consultancy that organises the classes and, according to her, was attempting to “bridge the information gap between the two most dynamic countries of our generation.” After the students had revised a particular portion in the textbook, Vasi quizzed them on their vocabulary, writing words on the blackboard in pinyin, as well as their English transliteration. While explaining words to the class, she used Hindi words to help students with the pronunciations—“shí,” meaning “is,” was described as the “shr” of “shrimaan”; “bù,” meaning “not,” was described as the “pu” as in “putri.”

“All of a sudden, Mandarin is not daunting,” Vasi said of this approach. “Because you are learning Mandarin through Hindi, from a language you are already familiar with.”

Vasi is a former business journalist who, while she worked for the Times of India in Mumbai, reported on an upswing of multinational companies setting up shop in China, and then expanding into India between 2004 and 2005. She became curious, she explained, to understand “what it was about China” that was leading companies to set up there first and figure out the Chinese market, before moving into India.

In 2006, she quit her job and moved to Shanghai. Over the next three years, she taught English at a private school, learnt Mandarin at the city’s Fudan University, and travelled through the country as the head of the India vertical of a Chinese tax and legal consultancy.

In 2010, she moved back to Mumbai and decided to use her language skills to teach Mandarin to Indian professionals who had or were seeking business ties with China. The company she founded with her partner Xiaojie Wang emphasises both speaking skills as well as listening skills, such as training students in hearing subtleties of accents and intonations. Their focus is firmly on those with business aspirations in China. “In our curriculum, we bring in numbers, bargaining, revenue and profit,” she said. “We talk about the area and size of a factory, a consignment. We understand why Indians are going to China.”

The figures bear out her assumptions. Over the last year, China became India’ largest trading partner, a study released in March by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a trade group in Delhi, said. China now accounts for 8.7 percent of India’s total foreign trade, or $49.5 billion, according to the report.

“China is taking over,” Gandhi said, with a sense of urgency. His own family business is based in Surat, but has front-end offices in Mumbai and Hong Kong. “If you are a diamond businessman, you are likely dealing with the Chinese.” He described how different aspects of the diamond trade were shifting to China because of cheaper labour and increasing demand. “The competition there has gone crazy,” he said. “Basically, you need to speak Mandarin to be in control.”

Jairaj Singh Bisht, an IT solutions entrepreneur, was attending Mandarin classes because his work entailed constant interactions with Chinese manufacturers. Whether it was Hewlett Packard or IBM, he explained, all components came from Chinese sources. “And you can never be sure of the intentions of the interpreter,” he said. “For all you know, he could be hand-in-glove with the Chinese manufacturer.” Also in the class was Garima Mitra, a lawyer who specialises in foreign investments. “There’s a lot of investments flowing in from China so I decided to learn Mandarin,” Mitra said. Rohan Ghuge, a college student majoring in computer science, said he is studying Mandarin because “it’s the future.” “I heard they don’t like English,” Ghuge added somewhat unsurely.

The students agreed that Mandarin was not easy for them. “It is a tonal language, nothing like Hindi or English,” Bisht said. “Plus, where can we practice?” Mitra chipped in. “It will take at least three years to be fluent,” Ghuge added.

Vasi’s class, one of at least 32 Mandarin tuitions in the city, has been endorsed by the Chinese consulate in Mumbai for its move to hire native Chinese teachers, and has trained more than 700 students so far. The program, structured into three 30-hour levels, each costing Rs 13,500, teaches students how to write, read and speak Mandarin, as well as to listen to the language. Through all the levels, the Mehtas serve as stand-ins for Indian business visitors.

The course places emphasis on teaching students about the cultural nuances of doing business with Chinese partners. “There is a very strong link between doing business in a foreign country and understanding its language and culture,” Vasi said. And so, the intermediate textbook explains the importance of sharing a meal with potential clients or partners in China:

Striking a deal over dinner is very important in China, as the Chinese believe that it is important to first get to know the person you are doing business with. As a result, before signing any kind of deal, it is important to meet your business partner face to face, to share a meal with them. It’s during this time that the Chinese loosen up, will order the most unusual food (the more unusual, the higher the honour to the guest), and will ganbei or drink Chinese rice wine, (bai jiu). If you are a non-alcoholic, or can’t carry your alcohol well, inform your host in advance or drink very cautiously. Usually, the host or his colleagues will ganbei with you several times during the meal, you can reciprocate similarly. Smoking is also a very social activity in China and cigarette sticks are generously handed out. Beware, such nights often get loud and end in karaoke!

All the socialising doesn’t suit the presumably non-smoking, teetotalling Mr Mehta, since the introduction to the next conversational lesson reads: “Exhausted! The next day, Mr Mehta falls sick. He has a fever, cold and cough. Mrs. Mehta takes him to the hospital to see a doctor.” Some rest and a massage later, he recovers his health, and proceeds onwards with his wife to Beijing, the setting for the advanced level of the course.