Having trouble making friends in China? Let me introduce you to the English corner!
I’m referring to a typically informal gathering where you’ll participate with anywhere from a handful to a hundred Chinese students, most of whom are eager to practice their English-speaking skills with you. Those whose English isn’t as strong will still join in the conversation, especially if they have a friend with good oral English skills.
Lest this all sound pretty straight-forward to you, let me warn you that there will likely be a few curve balls that get thrown your way. In order to help prepare you for the chaos that may ensue, I’ve compiled a list of five things that you should be aware of before diving into an English corner!
Be Prepared to Talk a Lot
This one is given. You are the native English speaker, so obviously you should be the one to speak the most. Chinese students are really interested in knowing about your life and culture, so be prepared to field a multitude of questions!
If you’re an introvert like me, you might find this a little overwhelming. What helps me when I get tired of talking is asking them more questions. This give me a break and it also gives me an opportunity to learn from them.
Large Group Conversations are Normal
It’s not uncommon at all to find yourself circled by 8+students at English corners. In these instances, the conversation will usually revolve around you and the one student who speaks the best English. Unless you intentionally involve them in the conversation, the other students may seem like mere spectators.
For this reason, I prefer going to English corners with my wife (or another foreign friend) so that we can make smaller groups. This way there are more actual participants and more conversations are started.
It’s Really Easy to Show Off
You’re a foreigner. Many Chinese students have never met a foreigner, much less actually spoken with one. To some, you may be perceived as a sort of “celebrity.” With that status you will receive much awe and admiration from these students. No matter how harmless it may seem, don’t let it get to your head. All it does is make you more of a spectacle than you already are.
The truth is I’m not immune from the temptation to show off. Earlier today, while my wife and I were participating in an English corner, one guy asked me, “Can you write in Chinese?” I really wanted to impress him and show him just how well I could write. I ended up writing a six-word sentence because the guy wanted to see, but I stopped myself from writing any further.
Your Phone Number isn’t Personal
At some point during the English corner, you will be asked for your phone number or QQ (the Chinese social media equivalent of Skype/Facebook). You just might be the first foreign friend (they will call you a friend even if you have only just met) they have ever had, so of course they will want to keep in touch with you!
Now this also can work in your favor because you can just as easily ask for their phone number. You may not have even exchanged more than a few sentences with some of them (like the quiet ones who are shy or whose oral English isn’t as strong), but they will still be more than willing to give you their number.
You Will Discover New Friendships
In the smaller cities, it can be very difficult to find English speakers. If you don’t speak any Chinese, then English corners are really good places to start building new relationships. And though the Chinese may all look alike (it’s true, we do sometimes), each one has a different story to tell. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to learn about them! You just might find yourself an actual friend in the process.