Zhang Qin, a 21-year-old from Beijing, is staring at a computer screen, occasionally stopping to scribble in her notepad. Look over her shoulder and you’ll see the text is in Hindi.
Zhang, whose “Hindi name” is Shanti, is an intern at China Radio International (CRI). One day, she wants to be on air for the state-owned broadcaster’s Hindi service department, which currently has 17 members — only three of them Indians.
In a country where even English is used sparingly, a building full of Chinese men and women fluent in Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Bengali, Nepali and Sinhali — the six languages the CRI broadcasts in the Indian subcontinent — can take some getting used to.
“My friends were confused about my decision. The ones who decide to study a second language usually take up English,” says Shanti who — like many in her department — appears more comfortable talking in Hindi than in English.
How did she get the name? “Om Shanti Om,” she says with a laugh, before revealing that her Hindi teacher gave it to her.
The practice is common among those who take up a second language. Even tour guides in China usually have an English name — ours went by Tracy — so it’s easier for those accompanying them to remember.
Shanti, who has been studying the language for three years — including the one she spent in India at the Kendriya Hindi Sansthan — speaks only chaste Hindi, unlike the “khichdi bhasha” people speak in Delhi. She knows this from the little time she spent in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj.
According to Zhao Jiang or Kalaimagal, the director of the Tamil department, the “pure language” they use is one of the highlights of their one-hour programmes, broadcast in India on shortwave band.
The young radio jockeys try to keep politics aside, and focus on giving listeners a taste of China — from its music and movies to cultural curiosities like how marriages work in the country. A lot of listeners, employees tell us, are also interested in knowing more about Tibet.
Their work does not go unnoticed. The six CRI departments, which have about 90 people working under them, get feedback from 2 lakh people from the Indian subcontinent — a lot of it through emails or old-fashioned handwritten letters that sometimes travel from West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan all the way to Beijing.
For Liao Liang, a 27-year-old reporter in the Tamil Department, the feedback is “precious”. The other thing she’s especially fond of is “playing Chinese music for my Tamil listeners”. The Tamil radio channel, which also has a mobile app, gets listeners not just from India, but also from Singapore, Malaysia and the US.
Liao, dressed in a bright pink salwar kameez and white sneakers, says she took up the language out of “curiosity”. Having worked for six years, the next thing on her agenda, she says, is a visit to India to study further. This trend is common among employees at CRI, who study a second language from universities in China and then, at some point, go to India for a year to hone their skill.
Tang Yuangui, the deputy director of the Hindi service department, says that sitting in Beijing, they can only learn how to speak a second language in a “bookish” — and sometimes verbose — manner.
In a recording room nearby, Liao Jiyong, a reporter in the Hindi service department who introduces himself as Ramesh, says that no matter how fluent he is in Hindi, “I still think in Chinese”. He adds that whenever he gets a story, he first writes it in his native tongue, before translating it to Hindi.
That said, his Hindi is on point, and he throws around words like “janmbhoomi” to refer to Xi’an, his native city.
Yang Yifeng, the director of the Hindi service department, cannot say for sure why so many young people come flocking to join the Indian language departments. “Maybe we saw a lot of Indian movies or music as kids,” she says in jest.
Going forward, she hopes the CRI can — with the help of the Indian government and radio channels in the country — broadcast on the FM instead of short wave so they can “take China to more listeners”.
The writer was in China on the invitation of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.