Over the past four decades Chris has built successful careers in graphic design, book publishing, marketing, IT, and local government across New Zealand, Australia, United States, UK, Singapore, and Dubai.
Since 2000 Chris’ company Ground Zero has provided strategic planning, training and business support services to companies and government agencies in New Zealand and overseas, including North Asian market entry and investment. Chris continues to work with local businesses and organisations seeking partnerships in China.
Chris is currently President of the Wellington branch of NZ China Friendship Society and President of the NZ China Cross-border Electronic Commerce Foundation.
When did you start learning Chinese? What inspired you to take up the language?
My first trip to China was in 2004, while I was working for Wellington’s regional economic development agency. It didn’t take me long to realise that relationships with China were going to be very important for New Zealand in the future. And if I was going to help businesses make connections in China, then I was going to have to learn some putonghua (Mandarin Chinese).
I’d managed to pick up some words and phrases while I was travelling, but my learning really started when I enrolled in the Wellington Chinese Language School. The school was originally set up for school-age children to learn or improve their Mandarin Chinese but there were few adult classes as well. Since then, I’ve also taken classes with the Confucius Institute. I have to say I’m not a great student and work often gets in the way of my study, but I continue to enjoy learning and practising my zhong wen (Chinese language).
Tell us about your Chinese language learning journey? What has been the most unexpected or rewarding part of the experience?
Learning any language is a way of understanding the culture and values of the people who speak it, and Mandarin Chinese is no exception. Big picture, learning Chinese has given me an appreciation of the breadth and depth of Chinese culture. And the more Chinese characters I learn, the more discoveries I find.
For example, the character ‘dao’, which means way, comes from a root which means to walk. The implication for Daoist philosphy is that it is a journey that one takes in an active, not just an intellectual sense. The meaning is visually embedded in the word.
These discoveries are in addition to the practical uses of Chinese in meeting and greeting, and finding your way around an unfamiliar city or railway station. Once you’re out of the big cities of China, signage is in Chinese characters only!
What opportunities have opened up for you as a result of your Chinese speaking ability?
During my time with the regional economic development agency, and later as economic development manager with a city council, I was able to use my limited Chinese language expertise and China contacts to help local businesses connect with their Chinese counterparts.
More importantly, I was able to form friendships in China and in New Zealand which continue independently of our shared business interests.
What do you like most about the Chinese culture?
There’s a lot to like about Chinese culture but one of the most obvious is their cooking. Chinese cuisine is one of the great cuisines of the world. For the Chinese, this is more accurately divided into eight regional cuisines — Shandong, Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong (Cantonese), Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Fujian.
Eating togethjer can be an important pat of getting to know someone. When you’re eating food together, being able to say something is hen hao chi (tasty) never goes amiss. And when you’ve had enough, try ‘chi de hao, chi de bao’. There’s no exact translation, but it means something like ‘it’s good to eat until you’re satisfied’.
What are the most striking differences between Chinese and Kiwi culture?
There are many cultural differences, but I will single out just one. My Chinese friends have a keen sense of their own history, and their place in the world. By this, I don’t necessarily mean a belief in exceptionalism — although there is much that makes China exceptional. Nor do I mean an uncritical view of their own society. It’s more an understanding of where they come from as a nation, the difficulties they’ve overcome in building modern-day China, and the pride they feel in their collective achievement.
In contrast, New Zealanders are just starting to come to terms with their own history, good and bad. Learning our own history has only just been sanctioned in schools. We have work to do.
Why do you think other New Zealanders should learn Chinese? Do you have any tips for anyone thinking of taking up the language?
If you’re working with or thinking of working with Chinese partners, I would strongly urge you to learn at least a few basic phrases. It shows you’re willing to put some effort into building a relationship and that you’re in it for the long haul. You might even enjoy it!
There are plenty of videos and podcasts that can get you started on learning Chinese. But nothing beats actual lessons. Also, when you are in China or around Chinese speakers, don’t be afraid to take notes. When I was in Chengdu last year, I was still writing down things I heard people say in the same note book I’d carried with me for 15 years.