We often default our answers to “full of misery and poverty,” or at least I usually do. It would be a surprise to see smiles in a place many Westerners consider to be a cold, unforgiving dungeon. But in this place which seems to be sealed off from the rest of Asia, and the world, glimpses of internationalism can still be found. Children play, common people go to work, elite students may learn English, and so, the Pyong Yang streets resemble a typical city in modern China.
Of course, the pictures you are about to see have been officially produced, censored, and posted in the news section of the most popular Chinese website, QQ.com (Chinese Link). I found them simply by signing into the 400 million+ member IM service and clicking their News pop-up. These are images that at least a few hundred-thousand people have seen within a few hours, and probably millions more by the end of today. This is the perception that Chinese have about North Korea.
So, what is life truly like in North Korea? Well, I guess it depends on which news site you prefer to read…
From my experience, there are a number of blogs that are dedicated to helping the poor and underpriviledged of Asia. (Here- specifically China) One blog that has paid its dues and done many amazing projects along the way is the Blog of Dreams. It was started by American teachers in China who are trying to improve education in rural areas and provide scholarship opportunities.
Another website devoted to helping improve rural education is Beyond Distributed (buduanwang.cn), a volunteer organization set up by a very warm-hearted Taiwanese doctor. She keeps an office in the Entreprenuerial labs of my university in Zhuhai. A group of 50+ students at the university donate their time to teach Math, Chinese, English, and other subjects to students in rural China. This is an amazing effort that I support too. I’m helping them develop the Online English learning service that they will use to earn money to support ongoing volunteer work.
[update] Duke Engage is a growing program that supports undergraduate students who are willing to do a summer of volunteer work. I had the chance to meet and discuss the program with Duke professor Hsiao-Mei Ku, who is also a violinist of the Ciompi Quartet. Their program in Zhuhai teaches local students English through various engaging activities.
March 12, 2007 – 4:00pm Meeting with …. The Whole Staff! Johnson (Wang Manager-Lobby) Simon (Yan Asst. Manager-Lobby)
A situation that I wanted to avoid became unavoidable today! My intention was to meet the manager(s) of the Guest Relations office or Front office. I hoped to discuss what their specific situation is like before meeting the staff altogether. I thought this would be a good step-by-step approach. This is China right?? But, i got a kind of rushed (almost Western) feeling.
I arrived on time, greeted by Wang Qi, the bellboy who was my initial contact. He had been there for 2 years and his English was severely lacking- my first conundrum, although extremely friendly. He took me to the 3rd floor and we stopped outside the VIP conference room. That’s when he said “Everyone is here.” I said “really?? well… this is not what i expected. I’m not prepared to hold a class. I should talk to the manager first.” Then, the Asst. Mngr., Simon, came out to talk to me. He said “Hello, nice to meet you!” I also met Manager Wang. They told me about 20 staff members were waiting in the meeting room…
Now, i wanted to just meet these two men and discuss returning for a few classes, however, a new situation slapped me in the face: an actual class! So, I told them it would be a short meeting with the staff and in I went… I was applauded and got a standing ovation. I was under pressure!
I basically adapted what i planned to say with the managers to suite a large group of people. I used my famous “Make a friend with you” example. This got an immediate response from about 5-8 people; the other 12-15 were lost. (I suggest this for future initial meetings. It helped me see how many intermediate and upper level students there were. Also, it lightens the mood!)
Here is the breakdown of the staff:
Most are at a very low level of English. A few have actual questions that could be useful to discuss. BUT, that’s not the case for most of them.
If they are ALL lumped together in one class, i’ll spend the beginning on simple conversation and dialogue + vocab. In the middle, I’ll discuss some upper level vocabulary with “contextual” examples. Finally, i’ll review the simple conversation with the lower levels. They will form pairs and repeat the dialogues.
Here is what the managers expect the classes to include:
Of course, they want their staff to understand specific cultural differences between the languages, but they think a major focus should be vocabulary. So, i plan to give them relevant vocabulary and their various forms/ parts of speech. Looks like i’ll be in the book store tomorrow AM…
Specifics about the Catic Hotel:
1) They don’t have an “annual English program” for their employees. It doesn’t surprise me considering the low level of English most of the staff has. The lobby managers are young, with fair English, and very interested in helping their staff improve English. Good prospect!
2) The Asst. manager of their department is a slightly older woman who speaks no English. She looks a little impatient as well. I should consider her more next time I visit!
3) Hotels in general seem to have just a couple very good English speakers. Their abilities must be considered and we should allow them to take an active role in helping the class. It’s a chance for them to shine, not for them to feel isolated.
4) Simon mentioned “hui bao” or “repayment.” The hotel really seems to want to repay me in some way. I will be more clear about what I hope to do in the future in order to quench their curiousity. Maybe I need to up the ante after the first classes of both YinDo and Catic.
5) Catic’s design and managerial aspects are much more creative and youthful. Their strong support can really be useful for the website and future tutor offerings!
6)* Over a plate of Baby Japanese Octopus, Simon discussed the hotel’s goal to have the “Best Front Office/Reception” in Zhuhai. There must be some kind of award for this. If so, find the source and advertise future “Hospitality English” training programs there.
Zhuhai, China & Venice in a day (maepearl.wordpress.com)
March 8, 2007 – 9:30am Meeting with Zhou Laoshi. (HR department- 13 years experience)
Meeting with Zhou Laoshi was a pleasant experience this morning. I found out, ironically, that she was probably in her late 40s and rather traditional, but ready to accept me and bring me in for a few test classes ASAP! One of the most important experiences of all, though, were the moments when her boss would speak Chinese with her. This was the “invisible wall” factor that most chinese count on and 99% can trust is there.
You know, it’s the “we speak our language with the foreigners present and assume they can’t understand it” wall. For example, they had already agreed on times for me to come in next week and then the HR Manager asked about “future cooperation,” “what does he want to do with us in the near future?” “Will these classes really be free?” etc. I knew about these discussions and waited for the translated version from Zhou Laoshi. (She was very diplomatic by the way. She didn’t want to discuss the future yet, so she just simply left it out of the conversation. I respected that invisible wall and didn’t bring it up.)
This was perhaps the most victorious feeling i’ve had since my stay here in China. I’m now able to (listen through that wall and) consider all of these outside ideas, projections, and queries without responding to them instead of the translator. I feel like changing my name to a number… maybe 008!
We discussed the following points, which I will remember easier in a list:
1) Major problems for teaching English with the current hotel scheduling system:
a. Entire staff on different levels. Some think the lessons are too simple, while others find them too hard. Can’t be consistent with everyone!
b. A group works together one week, at the same time. The next week there is a time change for half of them. This creates different mixes of staff in the classes, creating inconsistant groupings in class.
2) Because of the above, there is always a dropping number of students no matter what is done to counter that; It goes from MANY to A lot… to some……. to few …………to very few.
3) 600 employees, but many don’t need English. IN FACT, only 15% of the guests are Westerners. This creates less demand for English study. *MORE Korean and Japanese* Although i did argue the fact that many Asian people can’t speak Chinese either.
4) March and April are the slowest times of the year. The times when hotels do annual English Lessons to reteach the basics to everyone.
a. May- (1-7) is Golden week, a big time for chinese travellers.
b. Summer months are usually busy because of Zhuhai‘s resort status.
c. Sept./Oct.- Moon cake time (Famous in ZH) they sell “1,000 million” I guess…
d. Oct. (1) is national day, busy time.
e. Nov./Dec.- Most people get married during these months to get ready for the New Year.
So, it was a productive morning. I had coffee after the initial meeting and I got a tour. I met everyone from high-level managers to trainees. All had rather mediocre English, but i stayed positive through it all. Sometimes i showed my chinese ability, but not in front of Zhou Laoshi or her boss. I will keep that a secret the staff doesn’t leak it first!
I further learned that the foreigners in this area are mostly Korean and Japanese. This is an idea that I would like to apply to my website- a kind of teacher search portal, but more on that in the next post.
March 2, 2007 – In passing conversation with a Coffee Shop girl, Sally (Floor Manager)
I have been going to a Jack and Magic Pea coffee shop a lot recently because it has some really cool customer-friendly bits to it. You can pump your own lemon water at the table. The menu is full of so many different kinds of drinks, coffees, juices, and meals. Movies play on flat screens in the main areas as well as in the toilets. The music varies all the time. It also has ports for laptops! Of course, this shop is a product of Taiwan and has been rather successful in Zhuhai, with a few shops open within a couple years.
My offer here was rather simple. Gather the employees together and offer some English training sessions so that foreign customers can receive better service. When i visited the shop recently, i had been using Chinese to communicate. When i started using English with them, their only use was just to be looked at.
Here are a few things I learned when approaching Sally with the training ideas:
1. “Pretty girls don’t need to speak English, that’s why I work here to help the foreigners!”
a. So, girls in a coffee shop are just eye candy. Makes sense i guess.
b. Ordering coffee or food is so simple too. Just point at the menu, eh?
2. “My boss will send me to TPR for studying English. It is 1,000RMB per level. 26 classes per level and 6 total levels.
a. Here is a useful bit. Now i know what the going rate is for group lessons at the local Foreigner meat shop. It is a large chain of English schools. 3 or more in Zhuhai already. It’s big competition for me if I choose the generic route of English training.
b. GLV 和平English is much more expensive. About 1,000RMB per two week stay. I have heard that many of the girlfriends/wives of rich Guangdong men like to study here. Maybe this is a good part-time job option… “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
c. I’ve also learned that many little English schools dot the city selling something like English to people. That is a saturated market if I’ve ever seen one. But, i am always approached by people who want to study English more. So, i wonder how they can be served…?
3. Don’t waste much time with coffee shops. They might be interested in hosting an English Corner for publicity reasons. They basically need one person who can communicate when they need her to. This is the typical way to deal with the “English problem.”
Without realizing it, I found common answers which put a silencing finish to my questions. It’s not a reason to give up. I know people need private tutoring and improved English interfaces. China is still not English-friendly. It will take time to produce the right mix of services that can be accepted by Chinese businessmen and the hospitality industry.
Don’t lose hope! There are still plenty of private opportunities that can be networked around the local cities. We just need to start looking at the teacher-supply side. That will take more Internet based communication. Foreigners tend to get lost in these massive Chinese cities. I’ll figure it out in due time.
March 5, 2007 – 6:30pm Meeting with Sabrina, Nan You Hotel (Guest Services Supervisor)
When I first arrived offering free English lessons, the response clearly was…. “What? C’mon, what do you really want in return? There’s no FREE LUNCH,” which translates directly between both Chinese and English. My intentions were simple and I stated them clearly: “I have never taught Hotel or Business English before and I’d just like to practice here at your Hotel. If I succeed here, then I’ll try to offer this service to more hotels with foreign guests.”
Although still a bit skeptical, the Guest Services Supervisor was eager to oblige and meet me. Our first meeting happened tonight and I think I’ve learned so much from it. Really, I think this was extremely valuable, or invaluable in crazy English.
Here are brief summaries of the points, so I can recall them:
1. Departments using English most in their jobs- these include face to face with guests.
a. Reception: Check in/out, currency exchange, phone problems, etc.
b. Housekeeping/maids: Problems with utilities, rooms, materials
c. Coffee shop: Ordering, problems, bill pay, small talk.
2. Low level or “First Line Staff,” in the departments above, communicate with foreign guests most, of course.
3. HR department is best to contact first.
a. They organize the annual “Hotel English training course.” Attended by ALL staff. This is a service that is tapable, i think. Could be expanded to bi- or quarter-annual.
b. HR prefers the supervisors/managers who speak English well to teach in house. It’s not worth hiring outside help to teach the first line staff directly. Too costly.
4. Community style hotels rent out spaces for restaurants, massage parlors, gaming areas, and driving ranges. Those employees are separate from the actual hotel, but HR is still the right place to go to include them.
5. Remember: don’t ask too much of one person who is not a higher manager. They can’t just ask people to do things like in Western countries. It will isolate them from their colleagues and it’s unfair. Slowly, meet the others and test the waters until something useful surfaces. You’ll never get what u ask for! You’ll get a Chinese version. Accept this and you’ll succeed.
6. Hui Yi Shi- Meeting rooms: Rented out by the hotel for business purposes. Not offered for in house language training… at least that was “said,” but the meaning could be something else. Instead, the dorms were suggested as a meeting place.
a. HR director gave me a very typical response to something they don’t want to do… Basically, “We can have these English lessons in the dormitory meeting rooms, but unfortunately, these rooms are still under construction.”
b. Don’t solve their “problems” for them. They are only saying this as a way to tell you “no, we disagree, or just we aren’t interested.” Reminds me of when i asked for a 3rd teacher at our college… I pushed at that time and I learned the hard way.
7. English Corner is one style of training they might be interested in. Supervisors need experience with casual English encounters. This will support their further tasks when cooperating with foreigners.
8. FIND out where these Foreign guests come from! 80% of the the foreigners at this hotel are from JAPAN. I realized this a bit late. The HR director obviously has other priorities here.
I’m starting to sense the real demand in this market. THIS is one way to find out the parameters of what I need to do. I’m just putting myself out there, for free, and getting slapped around! You should try it sometime, you might just enjoy what you find!
At the end of the day, I realized that so much research is needed before creating plans for what I want to do here in Zhuhai– create a consultancy for the Language needs of Resorts, Hotels, and businesses. Maybe I will have to seriously consider including Japanese to this plan…