A few weeks ago, my wife and I were in Xi’an, exploring this old city. One night we got lost in the Muslim quarter. We tried asking directions for the hotel we were staying at. In spite of having the hotel card, we were not succeeding. Then, a girl from a group of 3 friends asked us if she could help. We were surprised with her willingness to assist us and her abilities in English.
She used her cellular phone to call the hotel, and got the directions. We now knew the way back through the small lanes. We thanked them and proceeded on our way. They insisted that they wanted to make sure we would find our way back properly. On the way there, we talked further. They were finishing junior high school. They wanted to practice their English with foreigners. They explained that by doing well in English, it would increase their chance of getting into a better university. We were impressed with their keenest and absence of reserve in trying their English.
Xian Muslim quarter. Source: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
The next day, we were back in the Muslin quarter as my wife was aiming to bring a small gift for one of her students. As we wondered around, a student approached us asking if he could help. My wife asked for his opinion. It turn out that he was in a group of 5 students from one of Xi’an’s universities. They were walking around the area aiming to meet people with whom they could practice their English. After his assistance, we had a pleasant discussion in the middle of the lane where we had met them. They wanted to know where we came from, what we were doing in China, where we were living, and so on. Questions were coming furiously as they were competing to ask them. When we told them that we were teaching at universities in Shanghai, their excitement increased. They had even more questions. By the time the discussion ended, we had talked for 30 minutes or so. It was obvious that they wanted to make the most out of this opportunity.
The following day as we were walking through the Muslim quarter again, this time on our way to a temple, we were approached by another group of university students. They were from a distant province, visiting Xi’an for a few days. This group of 4 students also wanted to practice their English. As we talked one of the students was filming me, probably to replay the video in a setting that would allow them to get more out of the conversation. They were part of the English Club at their university. After 20 minutes or so, the student who was filming asked me to give advice on how best to expand their abilities in English. So I shared some ideas that were recorded. While I was talking to two of the students, the other two had focused on my wife, firing questions at her.
A stall in the Muslim quarter in Xi’an. Source: Xi’an Tourist Office.
Wow! Quite an experience of keenness from students who wanted to perfect their abilities. There was no shyness, only a desire to communicate and capitalize on an opportunity. This shows the drive that inhabits many students in their desire to succeed in this highly competitive environment.