125. Hello May I Speak with You?

Hello May I Speak With You: Most every child in China’s education system today is learning English. They’re being taught by American, British and Australian nationals on working holidays, mostly fresh out of college and taking advantage of the tremendous demand for native English teachers in Asia. For the students, their teacher may be the only native English speaker they’ve ever conversed with, although they’re encouraged to approach Western travelers in their hometown to start conversations. That’s a lot to ask of a shy kid who’s self-conscious about their ability. But imagine studying a language every day, for the entirety of your youth, without ever really being able to gauge how good you are in spontaneous conversation. One day you’d just break, courage takes hold, and you turn to the Westerner who’s next to you on a train or on the crowded narrow path down the side of a sacred mountain, and you just say it. Hello, may I speak with you?

It’s hard not to be charmed by that nervous pitch, no matter how foul your mood. It’s also hard not to be humbled by it. I am, every time someone who’s worked so hard to learn my language approaches me in their own country, where they have every right to expect that I should be learning and speaking their language. But I can’t. So we have the same conversation every time, the where-are-you-from-how-long-have-you-been-here and what-do-you-think-about-Chinese-food one-act script that amazingly, never gets old. During one of these conversations on a tour bus full of Chinese families, an older man who’d been required to learn English by his company leaned over to me and said, “The young generations are all very good at English. In twenty years I think everyone in China will speak some English.” That’s a tall order, but it did make me realize that it’s these bright, earnest kids who will save our bacon while we bumble through China. When I’m standing with that blank look of desperation on a train platform, they’re the ones who jump in and ask where I’m going. When the tour leader is firing incomprehensible instructions at us, they’re the ones who pull us aside to say that we should be back at the bus by 11:45 and by the way, lunch is included. They’ve told us that the old woman pointing and laughing at us actually thinks we’re great at using chopsticks, that the rickshaw ride we want to take should only cost half what we’ve been paying and even what The Ambassador was shouting at Kirk on that crowded train ride. It turns out he’s going to keep Kirk’s picture in his heart, forever, and also welcome, welcome, welcome to China. I’m really glad we got that one cleared up.


  1. Dan says:

    Sure hope you’re still not considering coming home early.