2004.11.29 Urumqi, China

An Open Letter to Students of English in China:

Can I offer some advice? Really, I think it will help the both of us. See, we've met so many times already: there was that time last week when I was waiting on the bus. There was that other time I was chatting with friends in a restaurant, and those so many days I was minding my own business strolling across campus. Were you observing me over the course of the term before finally initiating the conversation or was it a spur-of-the-moment action? Whatever the case, your approach didn't work.

Those first couple times it was difficult for me to turn you down. When somebody comes up and says, "I want to be your friend," I automatically go into gentle mode. In English, a sentence of that nature is a cue that the speaker must be either a young child or in some way socially retarded. I used to hem and haw, unsure how to react. It seemed so cruel to dismiss somebody who came up, openly asking to be my friend. At this point I've heard that line so many times it now has the opposite effect.

May I present some suggestions? Had you avoided each of the Seven Deadly Errors in Opening Lines when Chatting-Up an American, I might well have gone out and bought you dinner on the spot. Every English-language groupie I've met yet far in China has violated at least one of these sacrosanct rules--I would be mightily impressed by somebody who didn't. Take them to heart:

  1. Do not tell me, "I want to be your friend."
  2. Do not ask me, "Are you English?"
  3. Do not invite me to come teach at your friend's private English training center.
  4. Do not interrupt me when I am eating, or having a conversation with somebody else.
  5. Do not demand my phone number.
  6. Do not inform me how fascinated you are by the culture of my country, especially if that is defined by The Carpenters or Hotel California.
  7. Do not propose that I help you practice English.
How do we do it, then? As Americans, it's more natural for us to be introduced through friends than to walk up to somebody on the street and try to get free English lessons. The street approach is possible, though. If you don't have the guanxi to get to know me in the manner I'm more comfortable with, try this out on the street:

Please understand that even if you do use this approach, I may still not call you back. There are 1.3 billion of you in this country who all just got the same idea: learning English is the route by which bountiful fortune, happy family, and cherish-the-rainbow are all achieved. I've come here because I am as interested in the cultures here as you are in mine. Unfortunately, there aren't as many of me as there are of you. I personally am more interested in the cultures of your 55 Happy Minority Nations than the big-star of the Han People, so you might have more luck with me if you happen to be Uighur, Mongol, or Tajik. Sorry, that's just me.

Best of luck with your study of English.

David V. Wong