For all those who believe that the English language stands between China and the world, Wang Feng Xian, grandmother of two, showed off a new weapon this summer: “How do you do?”
The husband of the 66-year-old Chinese housewife suffers from cancer and her son has a serious lung ailment. But Wang, with short hair, chubby cheeks and a huge smile, has tried not to miss a single class, held once a week by regular teachers who use books, pictures and audio aids.
Across neighbourhoods in Beijing and other Olympic Games sites, thousands of residents — mostly elderly people and largely women — are flocking to learn English in programmes run by local communities.
The English language is China’s Achilles’ Heel, a shortcoming it is trying to overcome with a national push for it in schools.
Many Chinese people are even undergoing tongue surgeries to have better pronounciation skills, according to media reports.
But the communities’ programme has thrown up surprising interest for the language among retirees, said a foreign ministry official who cannot be named under briefing rules.
“I had to take care of my husband and son but I never stopped the course,” Wang said, speaking with the help of an interpreter, but using English words herself as well.
“My purpose is to show support to the Olympic Games. The English fever is here in Beijing.”
The first steps have been promising. Her grandchildren, six and four, also want to learn the language now, she says.
“Ah! Here comes our brightest student!” shouted municipal official Chen Dachun, 68, as he met Wang outside her home. “We are holding classes in so many municipalities. Old people are equally excited about learning English.”
When tourists came calling, Wang used to slink away in embarrassment earlier, unable to understand or reply to their simplest of questions. Now she bravely shows them directions to restrooms and taxis: “I tell them, ‘turn left, turn right, then straight’.”
Minutes later, she interrupts the interpreter and says: “There are five people in my family. Father, mother, husband, son and I.”
For the few classes she missed, her teacher sent home cassettes with recorded lessons of the day.
“Even when I made medicine for my husband with Chinese herbs, I used to keep the English book by my side and polish up my vocabulary,” Wang said. “I am so confident now.”