Job market in Asia grows tougher

This article from the New York Times, For Westerners in Asia, Job Market Grows Tougher, details the changing job market in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The premise of the article is that while previously a foreigner with solid credentials and work experience could waltz into a comfortable white-collar job in Asia without necessarily speaking Mandarin or Cantonese, this is no longer the case. As the writer explains, “[t]en, or even five, years ago, experienced expatriates who were prepared to take the plunge stood a pretty good chance of finding a white-collar job in Hong Kong, Singapore or even Shanghai. But many are now finding it much tougher to find work, thanks to cost pressures, a larger pool of qualified local hires and a shift in the role that Asia plays within the global economy.”

The article goes on to interview several foreign workers, whose comments can be summarized as follows: “I was told it would be easy to find a job here/It used to be easy to find a job here, but every job I apply for requires Mandarin and/or Cantonese language skills.” As one interviewee put it: ““Now, even an understanding of the local context and issues does not seem to be enough. Practically everyone wants Mandarin.”

To which my reaction is, well, “Of course!”

The idea that some European can step off the plane in Hong Kong and and waltz into a sweet job without any knowledge of the local language is one that smacks of linguistic imperialism, and it’s high time it’s coming to an end. It’s not that “the job market in Asia is gradually becoming less welcoming for Westerners,” as the NYT puts it; I’m sure Westerners are just as welcome as ever, but they have to have the linguistic skills to do the job.

In the countries of origin of many of these European and North American job seekers looking for work in China, Hong Kong or Singapore, the debate rages on about immigrants’ level of language proficiency. If someone is expected to have fluency in English or French to get a job in the US or France, why wouldn’t it be so in Asia?

Full disclosure: I once worked a summer contract in Slovakia, and I did not speak Slovak. Do I think this is fair? No. That’s why I’m glad to see native English speaker/European privilege becoming less prevalent and for skills to be valued over origin.


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