From The New York Times:
As this article alludes to, if you are a foreigner and have made any effort towards learning Chinese, Chinese people are easily impressed. Chinese people realize that their language is hard for foreigners to get into. Most Chinese people are quite enthusiastic and supportive of foreigners who try to speak even a little.
She had them at “Ni hao ma.”
When Senator Kirsten E. Gillebrand grabbed the microphone at the Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown two weeks ago, she blurted, “Ni hao ma, zenma yang?” in Mandarin, or “Hello, how’s it going?” Later that day, after wrapping up a meeting with local leaders at a senior center, she walked by a few card tables and said, “Hao bu hao?” or “Are you doing O.K.?”
It is customary for politicians eager to connect with ethnic voters to butcher a few words in Spanish, Chinese or other foreign tongues. But Ms. Gillibrand is no ordinary politician when it comes to linguistic and cultural comfort: as an Asian studies major at Dartmouth, she studied for six months in China and Taiwan, becoming proficient enough to absorb stories in Chinese newspapers, and later spent four months in Hong Kong as a corporate lawyer.
Ms. Gillibrand’s Chinese is rusty now. But she tells her 5-year-old son, “Man man yi diar,” or “Slow down a little,” and calls chopsticks “kuaizi,” out of habit. And she can still converse for a few minutes, as evidenced when a reporter from a New York City-based Chinese-language newspaper trying to learn her Chinese name unexpectedly found an enthusiastic Ms. Gillibrand on the line.“She definitely understood what I was saying, and she had good pronunciation,” said the reporter, Yan Tai, who writes for The World Journal. “Actually, I was very impressed.”
While she knows a bit, it doesn't sound like Senator Gillebrand's level is too high. There's another world politician who's definitely got her beat: Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Here is a video of Rudd blingin' his Chinese on China's biggest TV night of the year, CCTV's New Year's Eve Gala:
When talking about foreigners who've can speak good Chinese, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Da Shan.
Don't recognize this guy? Nobody outside of China does. But in China, he's a mega-celebrity.
Da Shan, aka Mark Henry Rowswell, made a name for himself while studying Chinese in Beijing during the 1980s. The Canadian is famous for his Chinese because it is "better than Chinese peoples'."
He speaks all kinds of dialects and can perform the traditional Chinese dialog performing art xiangsheng (相声), which a friend told me "takes some serious Chinese skills." I've seen xiangsheng a few times. I can understand parts of it occasionally. It is loosely translated to English as "crosstalk." Da Shan said the closest thing to xiangsheng in English is the "Who's on First?" bit by Abbot and Costello.
Here is a video of his xiangsheng performance at this year's CCTV Spring Festival Gala:
From what I've heard other foreigners say about Da Shan in my three years in China, it sounds like most hate the guy. I'm not quite sure why. Sure, he's cheesy. But I, personally, admire his Chinese greatly. He's got some serious skills.
Seeing Rudd, Da Shan, and to a lesser extend Gillebrand, I'm encouraged to keep studying Chinese. It is good to know that if the effort is put in, the language can be learned. It is also good motivation to know that if my Chinese can continue to improve, it could open doors for me down the road.