For many westerners Far East culture is a mysterious thing: it’s so distant from our own Western world geographically, culturally, and linguistically. It’s no wonder then, those few of us who are brave enough to make the move to such a distant land as China that even fewer of us are willing to put forth the effort to learn the language. It’s one thing to move to China, (most of us are teaching English anyways) and it is quite another to seriously attempt to learn the language- and possibly fail. The fear of being laughed at, misunderstood, or just not understood at all is enough to keep most expats at bay on the safe shores of English.
I get it, the myriad of squiggly lines, boxes, lack of punctuation, and tones are quite daunting. Chinese simply does not resemble English in anyway, visually or phonetically. The tones themselves are enough to send most expats in China running for the hills. In reality, if you are planning on living in China for any length of time learning Chinese is all but a must.. Although English is perhaps the most widely spoken foreign language in all of China (challenged only by Russian) it is most popular with young adults and school age children. Don’t expect to be able to ever order food in English, use English to go shopping, or talk English in a taxi.
With that being said, it is certainly possible to get by in China without knowing a lick of Mandarin or Cantonese. There are expats who have lived in China for close to a decade who still don’t know greetings and basic vocabulary. However, to me, it seems that it takes a concerted effort not to learn. Like any society, China’s languages are a big part of its culture. Not only does learning the local language open the door to conversing with locals, but learning Mandarin or Cantonese in itself offers insights into the Chinese culture.
When you come to China not only will you be immersed in the language- ordering food, shopping, and likely most of your coworkers will only speak Chinese. But you will also have opportunities to actively learn the language. Many Chinese will become excited at a simple greeting of Ni Hao (你好). Which gives you an opening to practice your Chinese- regardless of how rough it is. Also, throughout your time in China you will find many will be interested in having a cultural exchange as well. This is a perfect chance to learn from someone who is eager to learn English as well as teach some Chinese. Furthermore, many schools offer lessons where you can learn either Mandarin or Cantonese (depending on your geographic location). And if all that fails you can always take some classes in your free time to learn the basics of the language.
So while it is possible to come to China and never learn the language that’s akin to traveling all this way to only eat big macs at McDonald’s. If that’s your thing then go for it. But I have a feeling that people like you, like us, that are adventurous enough to travel abroad- to taste the expat life- are certainly brave enough to take a crack at learning Chinese.