In Pakistan, Learning Chinese Is Cool — And Seen As A Path To Prosperity China's billions in infrastructure investment have led to growing number of Pakistanis eager to learn Mandarin and study in China. Beijing is giving thousands of scholarships to Pakistanis.
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In Pakistan, Learning Chinese Is Cool — And Seen As A Path To Prosperity

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In Pakistan, Learning Chinese Is Cool — And Seen As A Path To Prosperity

In Pakistan, Learning Chinese Is Cool — And Seen As A Path To Prosperity

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we are continuing our series on China's influence around the world. Today we visit an old ally of China's, Pakistan. For seven decades, they've had a close relationship, but it's been formal between politicians and generals. Now that relationship is changing and fast. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Saleem Abbas sits in a Mandarin class at a university in Islamabad. He's 17, has big, brown eyes and sits at front of the class.

NAYYAR NAWAZ: (Speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Speaking Mandarin).

NAWAZ: (Speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Speaking Mandarin).

NAWAZ: (Speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Speaking Mandarin).

NAWAZ: (Speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Speaking Mandarin).

NAWAZ: (Speaking Mandarin).

HADID: Abbas comes from a village deep in the Pakistani Himalayas, a two day bus ride from Islamabad. He came here to study Mandarin. He says he wants to pull his whole family out of poverty.

SALEEM ABBAS: (Through interpreter) I'm learning Chinese so that I could get a job, helping my brothers and sister to get education.

HADID: Abbas sacrifices a lot to be here. He only gets to call his mother once a month. There's no Internet back home, no FaceTime. He tells me in broken English.

ABBAS: Every month, I call my mother, and I ask her what her about her health. She's crying, but I don't cry.

HADID: Abbas lives in his uncle's house near a busy road. His room just has a thin mattress. It's his bed and where he studies. He uses an app that helps him pronounce Mandarin.

ABBAS: (Speaking Mandarin).

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Speaking Mandarin).

ABBAS: (Speaking Mandarin).

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Speaking Mandarin).

HADID: Abbas is part of this rush across Pakistan to master Mandarin. Consider the institution where he studies. There were a handful of Pakistanis studying Mandarin all the way from the '70s until 2014 according to senior lecturer Rashida Mustafa.

RASHIDA MUSTAFA: Before 2014, we have 20 each class.

HADID: How many students are there today?

MUSTAFA: We have 500 students.

HADID: How many teachers are there?

MUSTAFA: Before 2014, we have 10 teachers. Now we have 40 teachers.

HADID: Mustafa says students aren't prepared for how hard it is to learn the language.

MUSTAFA: They don't know what is the Chinese language and how difficult is this language. When they start, maybe after two weeks, they say, oh, ma'am, it's very difficult. Character writing is very difficult. Why Chinese are not trying to change their script?

HADID: But the demand for Chinese speakers is real and started after China began investing tens of billions of dollars into roads, metros, a port and power plants. It's called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC, and it's part of China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Tens of thousands of Chinese have come here to work on these projects, but they need translators, lawyers, supervisors. It's employment for Pakistanis in the country's weak economy. But they'll need to speak Mandarin, and the Chinese government can't keep up with the demand for teachers. Lijian Zhao is the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad.

LIJIAN ZHAO: From the embassy, we have a lot of requests. Many serious universities - they would like to open up Chinese classes, and they need Chinese volunteers. But we could not find the adequate number of Chinese teachers for them, so this is a big problem for us.

HADID: Zhao says China is offering thousands of scholarships in the hope that some of those Pakistani students will become Mandarin teachers. Right now he says there's about 22,000 Pakistanis studying in China, the fourth largest body of foreign students in the country. One of those Pakistanis who wants to study in China is Anam. She only gives me her first name. She wears a long, black robe, a black headscarf and a black face veil. She jokes about how nobody can tell her age.

ANAM: Don't I look like I'm 21 (laughter)?

HADID: She's currently studying physiotherapy.

ANAM: And probably for my high studies, I may go to China.

HADID: Do you think it opens job opportunities if you study Chinese?

ANAM: I think so because as I'm studying physiotherapy - and if I go for a specialized field like sports and physiotherapist - so they'll invest in that so I can go there for my high studies.

HADID: She says even if she doesn't study there, she hopes she can visit someday. And that reflects something else happening in Pakistan - this new sense that China's cool. It signals a profound transformation in Pakistan's relationship with China. For decades, it was centered around security and a shared distrust of their neighbor India. Now it's slowly becoming a relationship between people, and that might make this old relationship even stronger. Andrew Small is the author of the book "The China-Pakistan Axis."

ANDREW SMALL: I think you start to have something that is actually a more sort of sustainable cultural basis for the relationship than you've had before it. It's just being so thin in the past. I think it will be interesting to see to what extent the kind of long-term national outlook does actually change.

HADID: And this changing relationship between the two countries has led to long-term relationships of another kind.

ZUNAIRA MUMTAZ: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: I meet Zunaira at her parents' house. She's Pakistani. Her husband, Yin Hang, is Chinese. They've been married for four years and have a toddler. They call her a hybrid.

MUMTAZ: Her name is Umul-Baneen. That's her Pakistani name. Her Chinese name - father can tell.

YIN HANG: Her name is Eefay.

MUMTAZ: She's 11 months old. In Chinese, we call baby (speaking Mandarin).

YIN: (Speaking Mandarin).

MUMTAZ: (Speaking Mandarin).

HADID: Zunaira and Yin Hang met on Valentine's Day. He was at a hotel, translating for a woman offering acupuncture, and she was there to get a free session.

MUMTAZ: So I saw him there for the first time.

YIN: I remember she smiled, smiling to me.

HADID: These kinds of matchups were unheard of in Pakistan before CPEC, before this massive influx of Chinese money and industry. In fact, their relationship was so new that her father initially refused to give his blessings. It took him four years to approve their union. Yin Hang says it was worth it.

YIN: Before getting married, always feeling that something missing. But once get married, I got all I want.

HADID: But the couple's own experience suggests that things aren't so easy. Yin Hang doesn't think Pakistan is safe for their daughter, but Zunaira feels like an outsider in China. They hope to emigrate, maybe to Canada. Even as they try to figure out their own situation, Zunaira says China is transforming Pakistan. And it's transforming relationships at the same time no matter how fragile and difficult they are. She says, look at the enormous highways China is building through Pakistan.

MUMTAZ: When people are making roads, it's not just a road. It's kind of an opening to a new world.

HADID: Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

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