With business and diplomatic interests expanding in Europe and the Americas, Chinese are acquiring a taste for a new language
The language of Miguel de Cervantes and Antonio Machado
While English remains the 300-pound gorilla of foreign tongues in the Middle Kingdom, some language learners are also picking a different European and global language.
Not only that, but Hispanic culture is perceived by many in China as exotic and sexy, poetic and intellectual, friendly and welcoming.
I recently joined a Meet Up group in Beijing called Chipanish, for those with an interest in the Spanish language as well as Spanish and Latin American cultures. I felt a need to reconnect: I spent a wonderful, somewhat Hemingwayesque college summer studying at the University of Valencia and touring Spain, as well as several years studying and working in Latin America. Also, by marriage, I was part of a South American family for two decades. My current wife loves for me to say romantic things in Spanish (men, take note!).
The group had a new coordinator, an amiable Beijing resident from Havana, Cuba named Alejandro Bauza, 54, a marketing and events manager. His mellifluous accent made me feel at home - there are many Cuban emigres in the US state of Florida where I once lived. Bauza's wife is Chinese and he says he came to China not just for job-related reasons but because he also is attracted to Chinese language and culture.
For the first meeting I attended at a bar called The Tree, Bauza had put together an entertaining review of Latin music, covering cumbia, merengue and others. He covered contemporary Puerto Rican reggaeton singer Daddy Yankee, the late Cuban "Queen of Salsa" Celia Cruz and beyond.
After that, the group toured an exhibit of the oversized figures featured in the art of Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero at the National Museum of China.
The next meeting drew some 30 people to Xalapa, a Latin American restaurant. I sat across from a young app programmer from Hebei province who took the name Smith for his blacksmith father. He doesn't speak much Spanish yet, but hopes it will help him professionally. He also wants to visit Latin America.
Next to him was Thomas Lackmann, 52, from Germany, who is in the insurance services business. Lackmann speaks good Spanish and is to be transferred to the company office in Mexico City in May. He also has a girlfriend in Mexico.
I sat beside 29-year-old Chris Saldana, from Miramar, Florida, in the United States. His mom is from Colombia and dad from Puerto Rico. He recently arrived in Beijing to teach English and wanted to meet people.
We all had a taste of Argentine red wine thanks to Luisa Liu, who markets the vino tinto for her company, Dorado, and speaks Spanish.
The list of nationalities grew: Serbia, Canada, Italy, Russia, Venezuela.
The next meeting on Jan 23 featured a salsa dancing lesson by a professional instructor that drew a crowd.
"We always attract more people every time we have an activity," Bauza says. "We hope the group gets to know the Spanish and Latin community, participates in events, visits art exhibitions and concerts.
"Spanish is strengthening in China, and opportunities (to teach) are growing due to economic and cultural exchange that grows every year. Spanish is the official language of 21 countries. More Chinese parents want their children not only to speak English but also to study Spanish."
Latin culture, Bauza notes, "is opening an important space in China, and it's noticeable how many Chinese students there are in classes of salsa, flamenco and tango."
Lu Jingsheng, China's national coordinator for Spanish, said last year that the demand for Spanish language teaching in China has "increased 30-fold" in the past 15 years, according to thepienews.com, the website of Professionals in International Education.
Lu was quoted as calling the increase "dizzying", driven in part by China's economic outreach to the world, including major economic steps in Europe and Latin America.
Spanish, in fact, is the second most spoken language by native speakers, with 405 million, or 5.85 percent of the world population as of 2010. Mandarin is tops at 955 million or 14.1 percent, says Nationalencyklopedin of Sweden.
While English often is cited as the most influential language due to its broad usage, it managed only 360 million native speakers, or 5.52 percent.
(China Daily European Weekly 02/05/2016 page12)