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.