The rise of Chinese in Nepal

Why more and more Nepalese students are learning the language of their giant neighbor to the north

KATHMANDU, Nepal – Babu Krishna Maharjan, a former newspaper reporter, now works as a guide for Chinese tourists in Kathmandu. He says he is able to make better money as a guide, while keeping up as a freelance writer.

“If you know Chinese, you can also work as interpreter or teacher,” explains Maharjan. “There are mega projects like the hydropower projects are all contracted to Chinese companies, so interpreters are in demand.”

Nepal’s biggest language college, the Biswa Bhasa Campus, where Maharjan learnt to speak Mandarin, says Chinese is the most popular choice among their students.

“This year, 600 students had applied but we had to turn away 200 due to lack of seats, and they nearly broke my door, protesting,” principal Bam Dev Adhikari says. He explains the popularity of the language is connected to the lure of future employment.

In a private school in Kathmandu, Wu Lijuan enters the classroom where her Chinese-language students immediately rise to their feet and chorus “Ni Hao!

Wu Li, as she’s known to her students, teaches basic writing and about Chinese culture and festivals, shouting out Chinese words for her students to repeat.

She points at a picture of a Chinese dumpling dish “jiao zi” and says, “like momos in your country.”

Wu is one of around a hundred Chinese volunteers teaching language in 90 schools in Nepal under an agreement between the two governments.

Nepal and China have diplomatic ties since the late 1950s. The larger northern neighbor has recently introduced programs to promote its culture and language as well.

“Under an agreement between the Education Ministry and the Chinese embassy, we have been running this program since 2005,” says Basanta Shrestha of Chinese Teachers Home, who is responsible for coordinating placements between the embassy and the schools.

In the past, only English and Nepali were taught as compulsory languages. But the new trend is catching on.

“We offer Chinese as compulsory subject from class three to seven,” says Rajendra Sharma, the vice-principal of NK Singh Memorial English Preparatory School.

The school’s program is in its 6th year. The Chinese government supplies volunteer language teachers.

“Offering a foreign language means we have something new to attract students and parents to our school,” says Sharma. “Both Hindi and Chinese are important languages for us, because they are our closest neighbors.”

Hindi and Nepali share roots in Sanskrit. The cultural and religious affinities between India and Nepal and the popularity of Bollywood films makes Hindi a commonly understood language in Nepal. But Chinese “is Greek” to the Nepalese.

“China is a growing economy and we feel our students might benefit from learning this language in terms of opportunity in the future,” says Sharma.

The increasing number of Chinese tourists in Nepal has made the language a lucrative skill.

“The power of language naturally follows the power of economy,” Ganga Sagar Pant of Nepal Tourism Association says, noting that Chinese tourists account for 25 per cent of annual arrivals.

“Growing economy means more employment. In Nepal employment is an issue and learning Chinese means getting a job.”

Besides schools, Confucius Classroom Nepal in Kathmandu offers Chinese lessons at 19 centers, teaching 900 students.

“A foreign language is like a window and Chinese-language learning will help bridge the gap between the people of China and Nepal and help young people to further their career,” says Chinese ambassador to Nepal Wu Chuntai of promotional programs.

China’s influence on Nepal has been growing as it provides more military aid to prevent anti-China activities by Tibetan refugees. In return, Kathmandu reaffirms its “one-China” policy.

Bilateral trade volume reached $1.2 billion last year, as Nepal relies heavily on Chinese goods.

“China is our good neighbor and developing in every field, so it’s important for us to learn their language,” says Minister for Tourism and Culture Ram Kumar Shrestha. “It’s a popular choice for a second language, surpassing the previous need for Spanish or French.”

Learning to read and write Chinese is challenging for Nepalese, because it is a “pictorial language” unlike Nepali, which uses an alphabet.

“I like to write the characters most because it’s fun. It’s like art and it’s like there are new layers to learn,” says Deepsana Mainali, one of Wu Li’s students. “It is mind skills as well as knowledge about a foreign country.”

The cultural interchange cuts both ways. Wu says she enjoys the teaching and living in Kathmandu with its pleasant weather, even as she admits that it can sometimes be slightly exhausting.

“Education in Nepal is very different from China. In China, it’s strict, unlike here,” she says. “But every day, I’m so happy to just teach and play after class with the children.”

Ni yao chi shen ma?” (What do you want to eat?) asks Wu Li.

And the class roars, “Jiao zi!” –

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