Volunteers find focus with English
Older residents add to rich lives by joining effort to support foreigners during Leaders Summit
Five years ago, Wang Meiling, now 60, was diagnosed with cancer. The disease took many things away— including her uterus and ovaries. But one thing she kept was her determination as an elderly Hangzhouwomanto serve her community, especially during the upcoming G20 Summit.
“Next time a G20 meeting comes to China, I will be ... let me see ... more than 80 years old. Not sure if I’ll be able to see it again,” she laughed.
Wang was born in 1955, the year of the sheep according to theChinese lunar calendar. She belongs toageneration thathas witnessed most of the dramatic changes of modern China.
“When I was born, there wasn’t much to eat. When I went to school, there wasn’t much to read. There was the ‘cultural revolution’(1966-76). When I needed to work, there wasn’t much to do.
“There was the movement encouraging young people to work in the countryside. And when I got married, there was the family planning policy,” Wang recalled. “And now I’m seeing the G20 come to my hometown. Whoknowswhat’s next?”
Wang, a Hangzhou resident and the eldest daughter in her family, left school when she was 16 and traveled five days by train to work in the far northeastern part of China, Heilongjiang province’s Jiamusicity, for eight years. When her mother retired from a State-owned printing house in Hangzhou, she was permitted to move back to fill the vacancy at the company.
With her broken education background, it never occurred toWang that she would be able to speak another language one day. Yet the G20 gave her the chance.
Since March, Wang’s community, Tianshui street in Xiacheng district, has offered retirees free English training in preparation for the summit. The classes start from the basic ABCs. Wang and about 30 other residents rarely miss a class, according to CaiQiaoyan, the organizer of the program.
“The oldest student is an 84-year-old gentleman; the youngest is a 57-year-old woman,” Cai said. “Now every one of them has learned at least how to greet a foreigner properly.”
The greetings are not just the simple “hello” and “goodbye”, but also include basic social manners— interactions such as shaking hands firmly and looking people in the eye.
The teacher and assistant are sponsored by a local English-teaching agency. Students come every Tuesday morning from 9 to 10 and learn entry-level words and phrases.
The elderly residents have developed their own way to remember Western pronunciations. Some write Chinese pinyin beside the English words, while others simply use Chinese characters to imitate the sounds of the phrases.
Huang Genlan, 66, one of Wang’s classmates, enjoyed studying English when she was a student at Hangzhou FirstMiddle School, one of the best in the city. Yet the “cultural revolution” also drove her out of school and ended her language studies.
“Many of the words and sentences I recited back then are still clearly in my memory. They just stuck there,” Huang said with a shy smile. She is one of the top students in the seniors’ class.
Now I’m seeing the G20 come to my hometown. Who knows what’s next?”
“Welcome to Hangzhou. Very good. Nice to meet you. Where are you from? Japan? America? China?” When asked to demonstrate her oral English, Huang fluently spoke out in one breath. Her pronunciation had a North American flavor, not what a foreigner might expect from a typical Chinese senior.
FanZhilin, 56, wasnot sent to the countryside decades ago because her elder sister went in her place. Yet she put little effort into studying English when she hadthe chance because shehad been told that “it’s not of much use”. Several years ago, cancer claimed one of her kidneys, and she started to realize what she has missed.
“I went to a traditional Chinese doctor every week. One day there was an English class coming. I told my doctor to give the prescription to my husband and he’ll get my medicine. Then I rushed to the school,” Fan recalled. “I just don’t want to miss any classes.”
Because of their enthusiasm, Cai doubled the number of classes and even designed some tests to keep everybody on track.
Wang Meiling about learning.
“I can ask ‘ May I help you?’ That’s easy,” she said. “But how canI really help if Idon’t understand what help they need?” is serious