The scene should be familiar to all who have lived in China for awhile: You’re out at a cafe or bar with a group of friends, having a beer and a few laughs (or is that a few beers and a laugh?). A Chinese man, or woman, approaches your table and asks to speak. He (or she) will explain that they’re desperate to learn English and would like one of you to be his tutor. Sometimes, they’ll just want to sit and listen but invariably use the opportunity to ask you the usual questions (Where are you from?). Feeling impatient, the foreigners typically ignore the intruder or in some cases ask him to leave. Face is lost, and there’s no way to feel good about the situation.

So, what’s the best way to handle this situation? On one hand, you’re loath to offend a local who in all earnestness just wants your help. On the other hand, you’re out with your friends and just want to relax without feeling put on the spot. Is there a tried and true method to make the best of it?

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. Rick’s idea is certainly solid, but if you have already been heard speaking English, you may be too late. How ’bout this one? Tell the person you would love to help them with their English, that you charge $___ per hour with an $___ upfront retainer and if they are interested they should give you a call.

  2. I agree with China Law Blog. That will not only get almost anybody to leave you alone for the moment, and if they are really interested and do give you a call, you can either ignore it, tell them your busy, or accept it and make a bit extra on the side.

  3. Yesterday we took our 14 month old daughter out to a park. Chinese people (especially female students) seem to be totally obsessed with white babies, and so all the way around the park people were constantly popping their heads in front of the pram and shouting “hello” and “please I have a picture?”. We tried to be as polite as possible but in the end it was starting to ruin the day, so we just ignored everyone.

    There is not a place we can go where people will leave us alone if not for English Tutoring then for Photos of our baby.

  4. Yep, China Law Blog has the answer.
    Throw the guy a name card and have him call you. I think if you teach English for a living this can be particularly frustrating. I have a pretty uncompromising position on this one.

  5. You can tell them that you’d like to help them out, but tonight is a special night for you and your friends, and if they would like to contact you in the future, they can give you a call. The only downside is that your number is out in the open but nine times out of ten they’ll forget about you, especially if you are in a large city with lots of foreigners. Usually in this situation, they don’t want to learn English- they just want some entertainment for the evening and hanging out with the foreigners is free and fun.

  6. I always answer in Chinese in those situations. Then I’ll say I either don’t have time to teach or say I charge a rather high price because I’m a professional (they usually don’t like the idea of paying 250/hr). As for anyone approaching me as I walk around, I simply ignore everyone and keep walking. I’ve left a few people angry through this method.

    Of course, another method would be to ask the interrupter to buy drinks in return for a brief conversation. This will save you and your friends money on a bar/cafe bill.

  7. It’s a tough question in deed. My thoughts are that the initial lack of consideration the person gives out weighs the ensuing briskness that we as foreigners give.

    I work on the double-negative principle… two negatives make a positive, and I can sit back and enjoy my beer.

    There are of course exceptions. Basically, I judge things by what I feel is acceptable. If I would do it to someone else, I allow others to do it to me. So if I would just be randomly inquisitive about someone (“Hi, where are you from? etc.”) and just making idle chitchat, and someone does that to me, no problem. If I become part of the attraction and am asked to be in photos, I simply say no. Or try to.

  8. I tend to agree with Ryan.

    Before coming to China I tried to find a Chinese tutor in North America and no student or Chinese teacher at my university would even return a call or email, never mind talk to me about it face to face.

    It is not your job to massage their fragile Chinese egos, foreign guest or not. Be frank, we are known for it.

  9. Search for some tibet discussions and found this website. Seems all “laowai” here, I am not sure I should join to comment here. As a Chinese, I may explain some of reasons,especially students like to do this, sometime not very polite.
    1. There is a very famous English teacher in China,students have been encouraged to open their mouth to learn a language, and been told better to find a native speaker to learn that langauge, and all foreigners in China are very nice and like to talk to you.(strategy of his “Crazy English” method).
    2. China opened her door to the world in a short 30 years, but not all Chinese have the chance to see the outside world yet and not all have a chance to get well education, and some lost the traditional good eastern manners in the chaos years ago. All of these will may be solved when more people come to China and more Chinese go outside.
    3. Just say no and never mind the fragile Chinese egos, it is a evidence of less confidence among Chinese. It related to the economic issues (average income still much lower) and history(occupation). You will find less fragile Chinese egos in Beijing and Shanghai, evetually the whole China, and hope it did’t turn to a dangerous ultranationalism, a Confucianism culture normally will not.
    4.When in China, try to experience and explore the real deep Chinese culture and history, then you will find more real joy. And Chinese need to find them too.

  10. “哦,你想练习英语吗?可真巧!我想练习汉语!我们互相帮助吧!” This works against 99% of the “language rapists” (because they don’t want to give back what they’re getting), and the ones that respond positively are generally worth talking to.

    I’ll talk to freaking anybody, but only if they’re interesting enough to make it worth my while. I don’t mind giving out “free” language lessons (I’m not a teacher anyway), but if the conversation isn’t rewarding — i.e., they don’t have the ability to answer my questions about them in English, and refuse to do so in Chinese — then I’ll end it.

    Seems fair enough to me.

  11. I encounter this sometimes in Taiwan — rarely in Taipei, somewhat more often in the South — and I still don’t know a great way to handle it.

    I prefer to say I am just too busy to do language exchange, but if the listener will pay (insert unacceptably high cost here), I could find time. That normally works.

  12. This situation sucks, but why not talk to the guy for five minutes, if you can at all stand it? Not even five minutes, three.

    I’ve been in that situation, in that I desperately wanted to practice a foreign language.

    It seems like giving it a time iimit gives him/her a chance to practice, feel confident and good, and then also lets you and he both know that you’re not gonna be the guy’s new best friend / free tutor.

    However, if the other person refuses to respond in Chinese, that right there is a deal-breaker. Quid Pro Quo, as it were.

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