English Corner

When I came to China, I expected the university life for the students to be very different from what I had experienced. I was told that Chinese students are in class or studying 24/6.5 and that they didn’t have time for extra-curricular activities. Well, I was misinformed, at least for my school.

Two Saturdays ago, I was in one of the main squares of the campus meeting a student to get some help on understanding a few things. In the square, there were many canopies set up each with a different student organization trying to recruit new members by showing off what they are all about.

There were clubs for kung fu, ping pong, theater, traditional Chinese opera, calligraphy and painting, Japanese cartoons and so much more. I also found out that the student I was meeting was in two different student organizations like these neither having anything to do with her course of study but purely for fun and personal interest.

So, Chinese students do have a little more free time than I ever imagined. However, they do have a ton more classes each semester than most American university students and study a lot more diligently than most American students.

One of these organizations is the Spoken English Association or SEA. Each week they host what’s called English Corner. It’s a chance for students to get together and practice speaking English. Teachers and foreign students generally show up to have native speakers for the students to speak with. Many schools in China have an English Corner, but the Anhui University event is considered the best in all of Hefei and students will come from other schools to participate.

Last Friday was the opening ceremony for the semester. A couple hundred students gathered in the square where they had a projector and some sound equipment set up for the festivities. When Melissa and I arrived, we were swarmed by people wanting to talk to the foreigners. We received a little respite only to be invited to participate in the ceremony. I helped welcome everybody and then later we played a game like $10,000 Pyramid.

The ceremony consisted of a short explanation of the SEA’s mission, some games and some performances by students. Some of them sang in English while some sang in Chinese. One boy played the flute and some girls did a little bit of some Chinese opera.

After the official ceremony it was time to just talk. I was surrounded by 15 or more people each with a question. I fielded questions about me like where I’m from and what I like about China and so on, but I also got questions about American politics like Obama and the upcoming election and the recession. Some common questions and my answers are:

  • Do you like Chinese food? I like some Chinese food … I don’t like all American food. Some of what I’ve had I like a lot some not so much.
  • Where have you been in China? Beijing, Hefei and Sanhe
  • Where are you from? America, the state of Texas, Dallas, home of the Mavericks
  • Do you like the NBA? I don’t really watch that much basketball, but I come from Dallas so I like the Mavericks because they are the world champions
  • Do you know _____? No, I don’t. (Generally, they are asking about a former English teacher, a Chinese person of interest such as a great philosopher, artist, poet or musician, or they are asking about a basketball player.)

I plan on going each week when I’m not traveling for a holiday or over the weekend. I expect my students to go, if they can, to practice speaking. I was very happy that some showed up last Friday.

I’ll close this post with perhaps the most memorable question of that night. One boy boldly yet nervously approached through the crowd and stumbled over the words as he told me that I was the first foreigner he had ever met and he wanted to tell his family but they wouldn’t believe unless he told them my name and where I am from. He asked me to say it slowly so he could remember. As he stumbled and struggled over his English tongue, the other students encouraged him and clapped for him after he was done.

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