Kunming English Corner
To even the most experienced traveler, China can be a daunting destination. The language is a bear, the cities are massive and crowded, and the stares you receive make you feel so foreign. They say the people make the place and, in this sort of hostile environment, it can be very hard to meet friendly locals, and therefore many come away from China unhappy. This is the Chinese experience that I was having until I broke free in Kunming thanks to English Corner.
Kunming is the capital of the Yunnan Province, located in southwestern China. Known for its cooler climate and the diverse minority groups of the region, Kunming can be a welcome respite from the stress of China. While walking down a major street to the Camellia Hotel, where I was staying, I was approached by a young Chinese man with a flyer. Expecting to be hassled for a taxi ride or to buy a knock-off Rolex, I was ready to ignore him, but he was persistent and his English was strong. I discovered he had a great offer.
Across the street from the Camellia Hotel sits the Thomas Foreign Language School (tucked between the very Asian sounding “Jazzy Move” and “Cyber Sports” shops). Every Tuesday and Friday they have English Corner, a chance for foreigners to meet locals and therefore an opportunity for the Chinese to practice their English. The Chinese pay 5 RMB (about U.S. $.60) for this privilege and the foreigners receive free dinner and a chance to get past the cold Chinese facade. I decided to take them up on their offer.
During a traditional family-style Chinese dinner, the foreigners had a chance to meet each other before the locals arrived. The night I was there we had four American women on vacation from Michigan, a Canadian, two Aussies, an English gentleman and an Israeli – quite a mix.
After dinner we huddled into a classroom and Thomas Nixon, a local and owner of the school introduced himself while Chinese students filed in. Thomas explained that he chose his name from Thomas Jefferson and Richard Nixon, the former being the first American Secretary of State and the latter being the first president to visit China. Thomas thanked us all for coming and explained how valuable it was for the Chinese to hear native English speakers. Like it or not, English is the dominant language of the world and China is well poised to be the dominant country of the 21st century.
Next in the evening Thomas gives a short lecture on a topic of interest to visiting foreigners and the Chinese practice their listening skills. Tonight’s topic would be on the minority groups of China. While informative, it struck me as a bit of canned Communist Party rhetoric, “Even the Han (majority) wished they could be minority!” After our lesson, came the highlight of the evening for Thomas – music time. If there is one thing Asians love, it’s karaoke. What could possibly be a better way to learn English than to sing along with video CD’s playing Richard Marx, “My Heart Will Go On” (from Titanic), and, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, “Auld Lang Syne.” It was a raucous songfest as the Chinese sang at the top of their lungs. Thomas used a microphone, and the foreigners tried valiantly to contain laughter. It was certainly an experience I won’t soon forget.
After music time, the foreigners were split up and sent to various corners of the room and Chinese locals joined us so that we could have small, free topic discussions. This was my favorite time of the evening and what I had been hoping for all along in China, a chance to speak to real people about what matters to them.
Most of the students seemed to have a strong grasp of English, but I helped them with occasional words and pronunciations. Our topics were all over the board, from music and local foods to the political system of the United States and the Chinese economy. The students were hungry for both my opinions and English skills and random questions flew out to catch me off-guard. While discussing my attempt at eating the very spicy Dai cuisine of the region I was asked, “Do you think the black people have influenced American music?” While talking about the landscape of my native Indiana, “Is sexual discrimination a problem in America?”
It was all great fun and I enjoyed talking to my new Chinese friends, no matter how deep or difficult the topic may be. I was happy to find that they were willing to discuss the Chinese government and their daily life with me. Just as their view of America is far too influenced by MTV and Hollywood, my ideas of China were based on political propaganda and a vague knowledge of history lessons talking about the Cultural Revolution and the Boxer Rebellion.
After a few weeks in China I was beginning to think the country could not redeem itself in my eyes. The cities were large and ugly. The people were cold or only friendly when trying to swindle me out of a few yuan. I am fortunate that my path crossed an enthusiastic young man handing out flyers on a Kunming street. A man who, along with his fellow classmates, only wanted to make some new friends, learn about new places and master a language that can open doors.