July 03, 2008

English Corner

In 1986, when I was a student at Hangzhou University, a lot of young people wanted to practice their English regularly but didn't have a place to do so. Prior to that time, those who wanted to meet with foreigners to practice English would go to local hotels and wait for tourists to come out. Finally, five or six students, including me, decided to choose a park near Hangzhou's Xihu (West Lake, pronounced "she-who") as a good location to create something more regular.

We didn't give the name to that place - Shanghai already had an English corner in People's Park, so we just borrowed that name.

The idea took off and became a big success after we posted flyers on trees. Every Saturday and Sunday morning Chinese university students and teachers and foreign English language teachers would get together. I was well known among this group of people. It was also a great place to exchange books.

At that time China was recently opened to foreigners so we were often visited by plainclothes policemen who would come and observe our group. In 1986 there had been a student movement that had been quickly supressed, so suspicions were pretty high. All the party secretaries were holding meetings and issuing warnings that the state would stop student demonstrations. At work it was "suggested" that I not hang out "with people in general society," which implied that I should instead keep to "safer" acquaintences. I was not involved in any student movement, but was really only interested in new things. I thought Deng Xiaoping was cool for opening China up to the world and I was happy to meet Australians and Americans. Since we were just practicing our language skills, though, we didn't really worry much.

People at English Corner were extremely enthusiastic, showing up at 7am on the weekends, chatting until 1pm instead of the "official" close of the conversation time at noon. After my first return to Hangzhou, after I'd been in the US for some years, I found that the meeting time had expanded even further. Eventually, after several years of suspicion and eventual tolerance, it turns out that the government is now officially recognizing the phenomena called English Corner. Now there are statues of foreigners and local residents conversing and learning more about each other and it's common for visitors to take pictures at English Corner.

Additionally, this place was also the starting point of the Hangzhou Winter Swimming Competition - the Winter Swimming Association was a very old organization that usually had members that were 35 to 75 years old. I was one of the youngest. The competition would begin near the location of what was to be English Corner and consisted of a swim of 500 meters on the coldest day of the year. The lake would freeze over very lightly. Getting out, we looked like balls of billowing steam. Now swimming in Xihu is not allowed, nor is fishing - I have lots of stories about fishing and swimming in the lake but we'll save those for another day...

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