From student to entrepreneur: How learning Mandarin launched the career of this Malaysian graduate

mandarin language
Shah Farid Rashid pursued an undergraduate degree in Chinese Language and Literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University with no experience speaking the language. Here's how he did it. Source: Fasih Mandarin

Learning the Mandarin language can be extremely difficult. With the many nuances, thousands of characters and a writing system that requires particularity and sensitivity, it’s a steep learning curve that takes years upon years to comprehend and master. For non-native speakers, pronunciation can be an additional mountain to overcome. 

Combined, Mandarin is one of the toughest languages in the world to master. Still, there are many benefits to learning the Mandarin language — and most point to it being the second most spoken language in the world. Being able to speak the language, then, can open you up to a wide array of career opportunities and chances for progression across almost every field imaginable. 

This was Malaysian-born Shah Farid Rashid’s personal experience. As a Malay man, Rashid had been brought up with virtually no experience in speaking the Mandarin language. “I started from zero so it sounds crazy,” he tells Study International. “But as a child in Malaysia, I grew up hearing Chinese people speak in Mandarin. It sounded very interesting to me, even if I didn’t understand what was being said.”

This prompted him to pursue an undergraduate degree in Chinese Language and Literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University in China — where he eventually mastered Mandarin within six months. 

Rashid at his graduation. Source: Fasih Mandarin

From humble beginnings to an international education

Rashid was brought up in Kelantan, Malaysia — the poorest state in the country. Like many in his hometown, Rashid came from a less privileged family. “I had many limitations during my childhood,” he shares. “I wasn’t able to pursue many of my interests because of the financial costs.”

When it came to his education, then, Rashid was determined to carve out a brighter future for himself and for his family. He applied to one of the most renowned local colleges in Malaysia. “I am the kind of person who believes I must do something in order to change,” he says. “It’s for the benefit of my future and my family’s future, so I have to do whatever I need to do now to succeed.””

Like many of his classmates at the college, Rashid managed to win a scholarship to study overseas. Unlike them, though, Rashid wanted to take the path less travelled. “Many students went for either maths or accounting,” he says. “I wanted to go for a different kind of option.”

Rashid’s aspirations came to life in the form of an offer to study Chinese Language and Literature from Beijing Foreign Studies University in China. It was different and unique — just like he’d hoped for.

“I was quite passionate and waited for that offer to come in,” he explains. “I knew there wouldn’t be much competition then because, at that time, not many people were aware of the importance of the Mandarin language.”

Mastering the Mandarin language in six months

Upon landing in Beijing, Rashid was faced with his next big hurdle: that of navigating the city. “I had zero basic knowledge of the language, so there were many problems,” he says. “The language barrier prevented me from going out, buying food, using public transportation and more. I’d always have to ask someone to come with me.”

With this, Rashid doubled down in mastering the Mandarin language. Much of this, he said, had to do with determination and discipline on his part — but also in how enjoyable he found his classes. 

“The classes were lots of fun,” he enthuses. “It was like a kindergarten setting with all the colours, songs and learning activities, except it was geared towards adults. It was such a different and refreshing way of learning.”

From then on, it was smooth sailing for Rashid. He spent much of his five years in Beijing exploring China and taking in the wide expanse of culture and character the country had to offer. His time in China was more than just enjoyable, though — it opened up many doors for him in his career upon returning to Malaysia. 

“I felt so lucky in this because I actually did receive a lot of offers,” he says. “My background was only in language, but I still received offers from Google, Xiaomi, some in the fashion industry — all these large, well-paying corporations. I didn’t have all the skills necessary for those jobs, but the most important thing to these employers was my ability to speak Mandarin. The rest, they said, I could learn on the job.”

Still, even with the realm of opportunities now open to him, Rashid realised that he was most happy in the classroom. This, combined with his awareness of how much learning Mandarin could help underprivileged communities such as his own, prompted him to give back the best way he knew how: through education.

Fasih Mandarin aims to create a fun and seamless learning experience for non-native Mandarin speakers. Source: Fasih Mandarin

Spearheading his own organisation: Fasih Mandarin

Rashid began his career as a Mandarin teacher in a local college. It was a profession he was extremely passionate about, but he faced many limitations — a result of the decidedly narrower curriculum in place. 

“The objective was to get students to pass their exams,” he says. “There was already a fixed syllabus in place. So I had many limitations in making the class fun. At the same time, I could see that my students did not enjoy the class. It was clear that my students were not gaining any value out of my classes — they were just there to get the grades they needed to graduate.”

It was this that prompted Rashid to open his own language centre for non-native speakers in 2018: Fasih Mandarin. The company only exclusively employs non-native Mandarin speakers — most of them Malay — to teach the language to learners. Since then, Fasih Mandarin has branched out to seven locations across Malaysia with over 8,000 students across the nation, and holds the title as the largest licensed Mandarin Language Institute in the country.

Fasih Mandarin teaches students of all ages, from young children to professionals in the workplace. It implements a lively and fun curriculum — using much of the teaching strategies that made Radhid’s classes in Beijing so enjoyable. 

However, Rashid says the most rewarding aspect of leading Fasih Mandarin is how helpful it has been to his students. “We had a student who came back and thanked us for teaching her Mandarin, because it directly resulted in a salary increment,” he shares. “It served as a whole new level of motivation for us, because we know that we are doing the right thing and should keep moving forward.”

Rashid’s advice to students looking to take the path less travelled? Trust your instincts. 

“You need to trust yourself first, because if you don’t trust yourself, nobody will,” he says. “Be confident in whatever you need to do, and work hard for it — and more often than not, the process is going to be very, very beautiful.”