Language exchange is common here. You meet with someone for a specified amount of time and spend half of it in their language in half of it in yours – that way each gets to practice a foreign language with a native speaker. We’ve been deliberately turning down these opportunities because speaking English half the time doesn’t compare to practicing on the old people in our neighbourhood who don’t care about English and couldn’t speak any even if they did. People who are only with you for your English don’t make the best Mandarin teachers.
And yet, today we had our first afternoon of language exchange session. How did this happen?
Step One – decide that you definitely do not want to do language exchanges, and make a habit of declining the inevitable offers.
Step Two – move into an apartment three floors above a family with a university student and a pushy, overbearing mother.
Step Three – get ambushed in the park/back yard by aforementioned pushy mother and her (embarrassed, apologetic) son/translator, whom she harasses in Mandarin throughout the conversation, alternating between “Use English! This is a good opportunity!” and “What did she say? Tell me in Chinese!” After half an hour of barely avoiding committing to the woman’s cleverly delivered request, use the “I have to talk to my husband about it first, and he’s busy losing a chess match to old men at the moment” maneuver.
Step Four – get ambushed three weeks later in your apartment by the son and his nice, friendly and probably-badgered father at 9pm as you were heading out for a walk with your friends who are moving to another city in the morning. After refusing to speak English for free several times a week at the father’s university classes (dirty trick!), agree to Sunday afternoon language exchange.
We chose to avoid language exchange because if you don’t need it, it’s not really worth it to spend half your time in English. But, we also chose to live in a regular Chinese neighbourhood on purpose, and if we want to be a part of this community, we can’t just blow people off. Well, we could, but in cases like this it probably wouldn’t be worth it. We don’t want to be English teachers, but we don’t mind being decent neighbours.
The son, “Shine Far” (if we translated his Chinese name… which we don’t), showed up today for our first session with a tea set as a gift from his family. He and I went for a walk to get my hair cut on the street corner a few blocks away, and it turns out he’s more comfortable using Chinese with us anyway. We set an alarm clock to go off when it’s time to switch languages, and it worked pretty good. I like him; he seems like a really nice guy, and grew up in this neighbourhood. I’m already glad we got sucked into this deal. Plus, he leaves for grad school in Beijing in a month, and we’re already working to pass him on to some American friends studying Chinese there (haha… foreigner 关系!).