7 November 2018
A generation of young American professionals equipped with the knowledge and skills to engage effectively with China
This series showcases young American professionals who have studied Chinese for any length of time, including studying abroad in China. Where are they now? How have their studies abroad, and Chinese language studies more generally, shaped their experience as young professionals?
Today we feature Ryan Kline, Yale psychology graduate and Associate at Mark Cuban Companies in Dallas, TX.
In his role, Ryan works directly with Cuban as a producer of Chinese language digital media content for fans of the Dallas Mavericks, a professional basketball team owned by Cuban. In some respects, Ryan’s is the sort of career many young China hands aspire to—one that allows him to travel to China often, build valuable relationships, and contribute meaningfully to something important. In Ryan’s world, that means distilling more than a decade of language learning and cultural insight into media projects that draw millions of views from Chinese fans—empathizing with them, refining understanding of them, and inspiring a family of friends across the ocean to connect with the Mavericks brand.
Through his work, Ryan’s Mandarin skills have proved particularly useful not just in content creation, but also in the ability to build productive relationships with his Chinese counterparts. Perhaps more interesting, however, is that Ryan’s story makes the case that truly learning Mandarin—indeed, striving to deepen one’s understanding of China and its peoples—has implications far beyond its immediate utility. So, we spoke with Ryan. We wanted to know: how did he get here?
Ryan began studying languages at a young age. Like most of his peers, he initially enrolled in Spanish language classes in elementary school. Before long, he changed course to French for 5th and 6th grades, but found neither language particularly stimulating. He had been looking for something new, a different sort of challenge when, at age 14, he had the option to study Chinese. “It just seemed like a cool thing to try,” he says. His Chinese teacher’s immersive teaching style transformed his initial curiosity about the language into a spirit of commitment. “From day one, English wasn’t allowed for most of class,” Ryan recalls. “He would talk ‘at’ us in Mandarin and we just had to figure it out. I loved that challenge and that’s what motivated me to stick with it for my middle school years.”
The positive reinforcement from Chinese people he encountered also kept him going. In tenth grade, Ryan went on his first trip to China through his school. The trip was as much a linguistic immersion experience as it was a cultural one. He spent the better part of four weeks away from the big cities, traveling backroads, connecting with people from various minority cultures. Although he had limited vocabulary skills at the time, he was still able to navigate social situations using basic Mandarin thanks to his teacher’s rigorous instruction.
“He emphasized mastery of pronunciation, which ended up being very helpful,” he said. “In my experience, Chinese people are very encouraging when they see you making an effort to speak the language. You are rewarded for the smallest efforts, and that really keeps you going when the learning process starts to get difficult.”
Ryan built on these experiences, continuing Mandarin study through most of his four years at Yale University. Although he majored in Psychology, he remained heavily committed to Mandarin, taking classes almost every semester after his freshman year. In 2012, he had an opportunity to spend the summer in Beijing where he lived with a host family and interned at Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, checking translation of scripts for non-Chinese film investors and assisting with general production work on set.
The internship provided him with a number of memorable opportunities, including a weeklong trip to Hong Kong where he helped with a Keanu Reeves film. He even helped produce a documentary about a group of students from Alabama who traveled to China. Ryan looks back fondly on this particular experience, as it was through this project that he could reflect on his Mandarin journey while getting to know students who were just starting theirs. Most of these students had never left the U.S. or even Alabama, but through the generosity of donors, they were able to visit China and even experience living in dorms alongside Chinese students.
“It was a really cool experience for me to watch what I went through when I first went to China and help them with language barriers and culture shock,” said Ryan.
After that summer, Ryan returned to school and studied Mandarin throughout his sophomore year. Although he opted to not study Mandarin during his junior year, that year proved to be a critical juncture in his Mandarin journey in that it made him realize how much he missed having Mandarin as a part of his daily life.
Early in his junior year, he joined the JP Morgan Fellows program under the Yale School of Management, which brought over Chinese business executives for an abbreviated MBA program. Ryan ended up working as an assistant to the chairman of one of the largest state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in China. Though he found the work challenging, Ryan gained a lot from this experience in that he learned more about how SOEs operate in contrast to privately-owned businesses and developed a trusted, congenial relationship with his supervisor—both of which are invaluable for people doing business with China.
By the end of his junior year, Ryan applied for and received the Dr. Richard U. Light Fellowship which enabled him to spend that summer studying intensive Mandarin in Taipei. Though his time there was short, he was able to form fast friendships with local Taiwanese people. Ryan recalls one particular instance in which he met a medical student at Starbucks, who quickly invited him back to his home to meet his family. The incredible hospitality, graciousness, and openness to making friends with complete strangers is something that many Americans are struck by when they visit Taiwan, and is indeed what made this time period so unforgettable for Ryan.
He returned to Yale for his senior year and signed up for another year of Mandarin study, but like many graduating seniors, he still felt completely uncertain about what lay ahead for him after he received his diploma. Would he be able to maintain his connection to China? Although he was deeply interested in China, he was not quite ready to fully move his life there. He liked the idea of flying back and forth between the U.S. and China on business, but didn’t think it would be realistic to find a job that would allow him to do that. In the end, he decided that applying for jobs with ad agencies would be a decent compromise, figuring that the skills gained would translate well to international business.
As luck would have it, just a few months after he started his first job as a junior account planner at an advertising company, a family friend informed him about a unique opening at Mark Cuban Companies that ultimately became the position Ryan holds today. His extensive experience in China and Mandarin knowledge has proven very useful in this capacity, as he spends much of his time strategizing about how to elevate the Mavericks brand in China.
Anyone familiar with China knows that the NBA has a huge following in the country. The NBA is the most-followed league on Chinese social media and China is the number one international market for NBA merchandise sales. Seeing huge potential in this market, the company decided to ramp up their efforts to engage their Chinese fans. With his experience in filmmaking, Ryan started doing videos in Chinese that were recaps of the week in Mavericks basketball news. Ryan was able to use his language skills in writing the script, sending it to a friend who was a native speaker for editing, and then filming himself speaking in Chinese for a Chinese audience.
This demonstration of commitment and investment in their Chinese fans was extremely well-received. Ryan’s first video hit a million views in 24 hours. Part of the impact was the fact that this was not just a simple one-off video shoutout, but rather a piece of day-to-day content that engaged the fanbase. After this success, Ryan and his team spent considerable time brainstorming how to work with both American and Chinese companies to engage the fanbase and build the Mavericks brand in China, particularly for the games that are played in the country. Thus far, these efforts have proved successful, with fans stretching their creativity as far as writing and creating Mavericks-themed rap songs.
“It amazes me that fans will take that much time to engage while being thousands of miles away,” said Ryan.
Ryan and his team also work to ensure that this is a mutually beneficial relationship for the Chinese companies partnering with the Mavericks and seek out opportunities to elevate their Chinese partners’ brands in the U.S. market. This work enables him to go to China 2-3 times a year and interact with Chinese business partners—in Chinese. Ryan prides himself on the fact that he is able to get through these meetings without resorting to English. He is incredibly grateful for the unique opportunity to able to use his language skills in this sort of career, especially given the fact that he is not based in China.
For aspiring language learners, Ryan notes that there are varying opinions on what level of Chinese is required to function in roles like his. He recommends that at minimum, people should attain a level that allows them to follow a Chinese conversation without much difficulty. However, responding in English is acceptable in a number of situations. Still, Ryan notes that there are many situations in which he feels that even he is lacking and one should always take advantage of opportunities for growth.
“Going past a basic level is really time-intensive, and unless you really love doing it, it’s a really hard road. For me, I needed to get to China as early as possible to start reinforcing why I was doing it. Take every opportunity you can to spend time on the ground—it will remind you why you are spending all those hours in the library writing character after character.”
Fundamentally, language is a vehicle for connecting people. The relationships one builds with people “on the ground” are what strengthen one’s commitment and are ultimately what lead to pivotal opportunities that broaden our experiences.
Ryan still remembers one especially long train ride during one of his first trips to China in which he met a family with a young daughter. They chatted with him enthusiastically, took photos together, and by the end, had exchanged contact information, though they didn’t speak again for years. However, just two years ago, the same girl from the train ride sent him an unexpected email to say hello, and Ryan was deeply moved by how much she still remembered from that train trip all those years ago and the impression he made on her.
“Those tiny interactions that you don’t think about too much have a way of coming back in ways you don’t expect and that happens in a deeper way in China than in other places,” said Ryan. “Anytime you have an opportunity to make and keep a relationship with Chinese nationals, take the opportunity because you never know what sorts of doors that might open up and what sorts of experiences that might lead to.”
Ryan Kline is a Dallas-based Associate for Mark Cuban Companies. He is a 2015 Yale University alumnus and has lived, studied, and interned in China and Taiwan through multiple prestigious fellowships, including the Dr. Richard U. Light Fellowship.