Chapter 29: An Indecent English Teaching Proposal

When you’re a foreigner in China, the most common phrase you might hear is: “Can you teach me English?” Your foreign face is like a walking advertisement that new friends or friends of friends can’t help but answer — because they live in a world where English could determine their future, or change their destiny.

Chinese must study English to pass the college entrance exam. In college, Chinese must pass the band-four English exam to get a four-year diploma. With good English, a Chinese could study abroad — leading to a new life in a new country, or a prestigious job upon returning to China — or build their career in a multinational company. To the Chinese — especially Chinese parents — learning English can change lives and fortunes.

And sometimes, you, as a foreigner, have the fortune — good or bad — to meet someone who wants you…to teach English.

My next-door neighbor, Zhang, asked me to teach her English the first day we met — and she discovered she had a foreigner living across the hall. “Teach me English” was more a command than a request — yet it seemed out of balance with the life she lived, as the wife of Tang, a famous painter and calligrapher in Hangzhou. She wasn’t interested in study abroad. With Tang’s fortunes, she didn’t need — or want — a job. And, for the 10 months I’d known her, I never saw foreigners visiting her apartment, or in the photographs she would share. Maybe Zhang wanted English the same way she loved showing off expensive gifts and gadgets from Tang’s admirers — it would be another sign of prestige.

Before Zhang’s demanding, phoenix-like stare, all I could say was yes — even as I wondered how. Still, she was my next-door neighbor, someone I would have to face nearly every day. And if teaching her a word here and there kept the peace, I didn’t see any harm.

But as the months passed, I remained busy at work, and in life. I kept late hours, often spending evenings at the gym, or out to dinner. On weekends, I often explored Hangzhou with friends — and later, with my Chinese boyfriend, John. And when I did see Zhang — usually when I came or went — she would use the occasion to introduce the latest gift from an admirer — renjia songde (given by someone), of course. There was never a good time to tell her how to say “nice to meet you” in English, and she wasn’t always very nice to meet, anyhow.

The first weekend in November, Tang and Zhang invited me, my Chinese boyfriend, John, and a Chinese friend, Len, over for tea on Sunday evening. It was the usual Zhang I’d come to expect.

“Our home has only the finest furniture,” she gloated with a sour smile as she motioned to the fine, round wooden table, and the exquisite wooden chairs and coffee table in their living room. She then leaned on the table. “This table was a gift from a famous furniture maker.”

We had barely sat down on one of the exquisite wooden chairs, when Zhang showed us another batch of expensive tea from an admirer. “This tea costs more than 5,000 RMB per jin,” she exclaimed, smugly.

Not long after, Zhang suggested we watch a VCD about her husband, Tang. It was my third time watching it, but I’d learned over time to just let her do her show. “Sure, sounds good,” I lied, settling back into the wooden sofa for another hour.

Maybe I settled in a little too much, because I wasn’t prepared for the next show, which included me.

In the midst of Zhang’s prattling on and on about how the greatness of her daughter (“She’s already studying calligraphy with him.”) and her husband (“Someone just asked him to write the characters for another monument.”), she turned to me with an indecent proposal.

“Why haven’t you been conscientiously teaching me English? You promised me just after you moved in.” She stared me down once again, like a talk show host who had just made the triumphant — and embarrassing — expose.

She was right — I hadn’t taught her much English. But she wasn’t a serious student, either. She spent most of her time with me talking about herself, like she always did. With such a huge ego, she would never have room for language study.

If only I could tell her the truth.

“I don’t have anything to add to that.” That was all I could say to Zhang, the great braggadocio who had me trapped, right here in her apartment. I said yes to teaching her English — to keep peace. But now I said nothing, because the more words I offered, the greater her indictment would be.

Later, John, Len and I returned to my apartment — yet it was as if Zhang had never left, because the embarrassment remained.

But John didn’t see any need to suffer. “Don’t take it to heart — she’s such an exaggerated woman. That’s who she is. If anything, she envies your life and the freedom you have. All she has is her husband, daughter and all of the finest delicacies and amenities — and there is nothing left for her. She is a prisoner in her life.”

John was right. Even if Zhang’s world was lavish, it was still a lavish trap.

And maybe, just maybe, studying English was like freedom to her, just as it means freedom to the millions of Chinese hoping to create a new life through a new language.

Have you ever been asked to teach English — when it didn’t make sense, or you didn’t want to?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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7 thoughts on “Chapter 29: An Indecent English Teaching Proposal

  • February 24, 2010 at 3:38 am

    Hello Jocelyn,
    I hope you are not sick to death of me visiting your blog almost daily. LOL. I actually came back to leave a comment about your neighbour Zhang only to find that you have added another post about her. I totally agree with what John had said about the situation. My other half said the same thing after reading the first piece about your neighbour.

    I have Chinese heritage and I grew up partially in Asia but Mianzhi is something that I don’t really understand. It makes things too complicating to me. Do you or your husband think that people like Zhang grew up feeling like they lack something and had a strong desire to acquire something to be at par with someone else?

  • February 24, 2010 at 3:48 am

    You had a very interesting neighbour. From your words, I see our life through her life, and our different characteristics.
    It’s always quite happy and joyful to meet different kind of people. Thanks for your sharing.

  • February 24, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    I used to get those requests all the time when I lived in Japan. It didn’t help that I was an English teacher by day so people seemed to think that I wanted to teach in my free time too.

    Now in China it’s different though – I rarely get these kinds of requests. Maybe it’s because I’m married and have kids and seem very busy? Or is it because there’s an English school on every corner nowadays and the prices are very affordable?

    • March 2, 2010 at 1:21 am

      Oops, melanie, I almost missed your thoughtful comment! Thanks.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a combination of being busier, and the availability of those language schools together. I certainly got fewer requests like that, the more I worked in offices.

  • February 25, 2010 at 7:51 am

    A few years ago my parents got the opportunity to visit Beijing. They aren’t much of the international traveler type, but they really loved it. They were really shocked by how they were treated in China. They were virtually celebrities there. Young girls were approaching them on the streets asking to practice English with them, they were admiring my step-mom’s pedicured toes, remarking at her blond hair and french manicured nails. They really couldn’t believe how friendly and curious the people were about them. I don’t know if I could handle that kind of curiosity on a daily basis but it was great for them because they really came away from the trip with a love for the Chinese people.

    • February 27, 2010 at 11:26 pm

      Thanks for all of your great comments! I’m finally getting back to you, after getting wiped out from the flu this week.

      @Priscilla, thanks for your sweet comment. I don’t mind at all if you come visit everyday and leave comments — my door is wide open, and there’s always a hot cup of green tea on the table for people like you! 😉 It is possible that Zhang grew up feeling that she lacked something…but I think the more probably explanation is that her husband’s fame and the goods they have are the only things she can feel proud of. I haven’t been in touch with them in years (I got tired of all of the bragging, as you can imagine), but I’d expect the same if I went to meet up with them again.

      @Adam, thanks for sharing — I’m glad my writing has touched you.

      @Melissa, thanks for sharing your story. I didn’t know your parents visited Beijing before. People are still really curious about foreigners, even in Beijing.

  • August 1, 2010 at 4:26 am

    Lol. It drives me crazy because most get the great idea to learn English, bother you about it for a few weeks and then never contact you again. Chinese people can be surprisingly fickle when it comes to English, especially young girls. ^^


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