Jonathan is an American film and television actor based in China. Jonathan was born in Torrance, California, in 1973. He attended the film and acting schools of New York University but completed his university career there studying molecular biology. Jonathan began studying Mandarin Chinese at New York University, and relocated to China in 1997 and started his acting career 2 years later.
One interesting fact about Jonathan: He is an actor and he always plays white guys in Chinese movies.
“When you go to a foreign country and respect the local culture and its accumulated wisdom then you will gain knowledge, perspective, and insight from every interaction that you have with people there.”
– Jonathan Kos-Read

Time Stamped Show Notes

  • [1:25] – Jonathan is an actor who plays the role of white guys in Chinese movies
  • [1:37] – Jonathan taught English for his first two years in China before becoming an actor
  • [1:55] – Why did Jonathan learn Chinese?
    • [2:00] – Jonathan’s university, NYU, required students to take 1 year of a foreign language, which he was frustrated about at first
    • [2:50] – Jonathan picked Chinese because he liked the idea of living in a strange country where he could understand the language and culture
    • [3:26] – Jonathan shares how his introductory Chinese class was actually full of Chinese students
      • [4:00] – There were three types of students in the class: Taiwanese students who could speak but not write, students from Hong Kong who could write but spoke Cantonese, and then native Chinese students who were just boosting their GPA
    • [4:52] – Jonathan shares the story of convincing his Chinese professor to pass him despite failing the final exam miserably
    • [6:19] – Jonathan passed with the lowest grade possible, graduated, and arrived in China a couple weeks later
  • [6:31] – Why did Jonathan want to go to China?
    • [6:33] – It was fascinating to Jonathan to go to a foreign place and learn about the way of life – “to live a life like a character in a novel”
    • [6:53] – When Jonathan graduated university he really didn’t know what he was going to do with his life
      • [7:16] – Going to a foreign country for a couple years and having an adventure seemed like a good way to figure things out
    • [7:49] – Jonathan thought he was bad at foreign languages, but studying Chinese at NYU showed him that he was good at it and that it was really fun
  • [8:28] – When Jonathan first traveled to China his language skills were still pretty low
    • [8:33] – Jonathan shares stories of some of the funny speaking mistakes he made
  • [11:06] – The most useful thing Jonathan did to learn Chinese was a pact that he made with himself to speak only Chinese for the first 4 months that he was in China
    • [11:35] – This was extremely difficult, tiresome, and lonely, but also motivating
    • [12:47] – When you start speaking a foreign language and you sound like a child, people will often treat you like you’re stupid because that’s how you sound
  • [13:34] – Jonathan lived with a Chinese friend and that helped him to improve rapidly
    • [14:20] – This was helpful in a practical way, but it was also good on a higher level
      • [14:31] – If you take a Chinese class in China you’ll meet a lot of other foreigners who you have things in common with and they’ll likely become friends; As a result, you’ll speak English in your free time instead of Chinese
      • [16:59] – If you don’t learn the language in the first year that you’re there, you probably never will because after that you settle into your identity
        • [17:35] – You have to be willing to be an idiot at first and to make mistakes to learn the language
  • [18:26] – How did Jonathan learn Chinese?
    • [18:48] – Jonathan had a tutor who talked to him for an hour every day
      • [19:43] – You end up using the same words over and over again and that is how it solidifies in your memory
      • [21:13] – Chinese is suitable for this learning method because the vocabulary is hard but the grammar is easy
    • [22:47] – How did Jonathan learn his near-native pronunciation?
      • [23:00] – Jonathan cared about his pronunciation a lot and really worked at mimicking people, but he also was born with a natural ability to pick the sounds up
    • [24:26] – Jonathan didn’t have to spend a lot of time studying because his entire day was immersive
  • [25:20] – What has been Jonathan’s biggest challenge in learning Chinese?
    • [25:27] – Learning how to read and write was really difficult until smartphones and pinyin became common
  • [27:05] – Most rewarding moment: Chinese TV segment (第七日)
    • [27:21] – Jonathan was on a Chinese talk show and a couple weeks later they asked him to come back and do a TV segment called 第七日(dì qī rì)
      • [28:13] – Jonathan didn’t realise the show would be popular at all until he went out to eat 烤鱼(roasted fish) the day after the first broadcast and a random guy recognised him and shouted out 曹操(Cáo Cāo, Jonathan’s Chinese name); It was rewarding to be recognised for speaking Chinese well
    • [29:43] – Funny story: Jonathan shares a really embarrassing and funny story of how he was speaking Chinese with his wife while in San Francisco and he insulted an older white man who ended up speaking even better Chinese than Jonathan and understood everything he had said
  • [32:05] – Life before learning Chinese vs. life after learning Chinese
    • [32:10] – Jonathan has been living an exciting life in China ever since he learned Chinese
  • [32:38] – A difference between the Chinese culture and Jonathan’s own culture
    • [32:44] – Jonathan doesn’t think Chinese culture is all that different from American; For the most part people everywhere want the same things
    • [33:51] – Jonathan and his wife don’t experience any problems because of cultural differences
    • [34:28] – Jonathan shares a common example people bring up: 坐月子 (The Chinese practice of women staying inside for a month following childbirth)
      • [34:53] – Jonathan explains how this cultural difference can be managed calmly and rationally
  • [36:19] – Jonathan’s favourite cities in China: Beijing
    • [36:22] – Jonathan likes the physical infrastructure of Beijing and Shanghai a lot, but he likes the people in Beijing more
      • People 飘 (to relocate to a city alone for better opportunities) to Shanghai and Beijing more than any other cities in China
      • Jonathan explains why some people are drawn to live in places like大理 Dali and 广州 Guangzhou
      • [37:46] – People who go to Beijing are usually ambitious but also interested in the world, art, culture, etc.
      • [38:19] – Jonathan explains further about the difference between people in Beijing and Shanghai

Jonathan’s Favourite Chinese Quote

  • [44:50] – 骑驴找马: literal translation: riding a donkey while looking for a horse;
    • 骑(qí) – to ride
    • 驴(lǘ) – donkey
    • 找(zhǎo) – to look for, to seek
    • 马(mǎ) – horse
  • [45:10] – This is commonly used when somebody dates somebody below their level until they can meet somebody better
  • [45:52] – Victor shares the quote: 骑驴找驴(qí lǘ zhǎo lǘ) – to ride a donkey and search for a donkey; This is like to search for what one already has

Jonathan’s Advice for Chinese Learners

  • [46:35] – When you come to China, stay out of the classroom
  • [46:53] – A useful saying by Confucius: 三人行必有我师 – If I’m walking with 3 people, 1 of them can teach me something

Connect with Jonathan

  • Google Jonathan Kos-Read and add him on Facebook

Resources Mentioned:

  • [39:47] – App: KTdict which is good for getting pinyin from characters or vice versa
  • [40:49] – Book: 三国演义 (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) – Jonathan got his Chinese name from a character in this book, 曹操(Cáo Cāo)
    • [41:22] – The book gives you an understanding of how Chinese people view the world and themselves because each character in the book is a Chinese archetype
    • [43:20] – Victor shares a Chinese saying 少不看水浒,老不看三国; It means that when you’re young you don’t watch 水浒 (shuǐ hǔ), and when you’re old you don’t read three kingdoms

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