M A N D A R I N   S U P E R S T A R

Mike Insley

Yealands Wine Group

Based: Marlborough

Proficiency: Conversational

Mike began learning Mandarin when he and his wife moved to China to work at a winery in the remote region of Ningxia in 2015. They ended up staying for four years.

Mike recently returned to New Zealand when he accepted a position with Yealands in Marlborough but his passion for the language, and spicy noodles, remains strong!

When did you start learning Chinese? What inspired you to take up the language?

In 2015 I accepted a job working in a reasonably remote area of China (Ningxia), where China is establishing its fine wine region. I was going to be the only Westerner based in our business there so it was a matter of having to develop at least a basic understanding of Chinese.


My wife and I ended up staying there for four very unique & special years.


Tell us about your Chinese language learning journey. What has been the most unexpected or rewarding part of the journey?

Long and slow sums up the journey – it’s a challenging language and I’m still not very attuned to hearing or speaking with the correct tones. However, people for the most part are very understanding and are often very pleased when I make the effort, even if I am mispronouncing and mangling their language.


I always got  a kick out of when I could give the local taxi drivers directions to get me home and they understood me – Chinese spoken with a Kiwi accent meets Ningxia accent and/or dialect and somehow it still worked. Also when I could pick up words in conversations – if I heard “Xin Xi Lan ren” at least I knew people were talking about NZers.


What do you like most about Chinese culture?

I really enjoyed the four years that I spent in China. It’s a fascinating country with an ancient history and our way of life there was different to how we live in small town NZ – apartment living, fruit and vege shopping at street markets, unfamiliar foods and smells and all that stuff. But for all that, people were friendly and we always felt safe.


What impressed me the most was people's attitude – a lot of people that we spoke with were very open that China is still a developing country and they didn’t necessarily have the same standard of living as other countries. But they could see how their own lives had changed and the rate of change, and that things were improving on a lot of levels – standard of living, environment, access to education and recreation etc.

What opportunities have opened up for you as a result of your Chinese speaking ability?

My Chinese speaking ability is extremely basic. However, just using a few words lets people know that you are trying to learn and respect their culture. In that way, it opens doors and new friendships develop. Even back here in New Zealand, having a slight understanding of Chinese language and culture has meant a new, wider circle of friends.

What are the most striking differences between Chinese and Kiwi culture?

Looking at it from my own perspective, if I had to single out a single aspect it would be the strength of Chinese family life – often three generations living in the same house and very close family connectedness within the wider family group. It was wonderful being invited to be part of that.


Why do you think other New Zealanders should learn Chinese? Do you have any tips for those thinking of taking up the language?

China is becoming more and more important to New Zealand – China is already our largest trading partner and one of our top tourism targets, but is culturally very different to us in outlook and lifestyle. Learning or even having a small understanding of the language helps to bridge that cultural gap. It’s challenging and unlike Western languages – you can’t look at a character and sound it out. Even just understanding that when you’re looking at a word in Pinyin (the Romanised Chinese script), the “normal” letters or syllables you’re reading may have different sounds is a good first step.