The Guides

Deon Matzen

© Copyright 2019 by Deon Matzen


Photo of young people at summer palace.

What could we do when we had guests that wanted to see the sites and we had to work? How would they get around when they didn’t speak Chinese? We didn’t want them to have the tours that regular Americans had when touring in China where they were kept in tow by a “group leader” all wearing yellow or red or blue hats and not allowed to really see Beijing, just the approved locations. We settled on the perfect idea, use our students.

On several occasions we needed guides for our guests from the US. Sometimes it was our students who needed guides as well. Many would not have seen the city but for the “field trips” I planned around town with Bob, my husband, or myself as a guide.
Bob and I did pretty well getting around town. I have a good sense of direction and the street signs are written in pinyin* as well as Chinese characters. Pinyin is the Chinese sounds written in western letters, as are the names of people such as Zhou Wei. The letters for Zhou Wei are pinyin for the pictographic characters which are her name, 周玮. Street signs had the Chinese characters with the pinyin below, Liu Li Chong, Wang Fu Jing, etc. Luckily the subway stops also used this signage system so we knew when to get off and I didn’t have to memorize the Chinese characters. (With the trains we were not so lucky so I had to memorize the character shapes.)

This was the way we would generally find our way around when it was just the two of us taking a walkabout. We would take off with little thought as to the route we had taken and walk, sometimes all day, for kilometer after kilometer. We each had a card in our pockets with the school’s address written in Chinese characters. If we were lost, and many times in the beginning, we were, we would hail a taxi and show the driver the card. He would take us home. We used this same system when we traveled to many other cities. We’d have the hotel write the address in characters and go have a good time.

During one of my classes I made a homework assignment that would take us on an exciting fieldtrip the following day. They were the unwitting guides!

OK, class, pay attention. We have a special homework assignment for tomorrow and you are ALL going to participate. Tonight you will brief yourselves in order to be prepared for our fieldtrip to the park tomorrow.”

You see, most of my students were not from this area. They had come here to study from all over the country. I tried to find challenging assignments that were a little off the usual spectrum. “Tomorrow we are going to a local park,” one they probably would not visit on their own as they lived on very small stipends in rudimentary dormitories located next to my apartment building.
I heard groans and I also heard excitement because I am a teacher like no other they have known and they often like my kooky assignments. I tell them they must study up on this park and all must be prepared to be tour guides. Their job was to tell me all they understood about this wondrous facility, thousands of acres with lots of historic buildings, a very large lake, lots of antiques and curiosities.

My teaching techniques are somewhat nontraditional, unorthodox, and my students were not the kind you usually find here in classrooms. They were very eager to learn, work very hard, and helped each other so "no child is left behind," though these students were not children. They were astrophysicists, micro-spinal surgeons, horticultural PhD's, computer microchip designers and more. I was their first native English speaking instructor and I am to teach them idiomatic, colloquial English. For them it was like trying to hear a new language that was only similar to the "Chinglish" they learned in school. The park we planned to visit was the Summer Palace in the Beijing suburbs near my apartment about a twenty minute ride by taxi or bicycle (I knew a shortcut by bicycle).

I had visited the Summer Palace many times and was familiar with its offerings and layout. I guess I had one up on my students in this respect, but they thought they are going to be my tour guides. I, actually, had traveled around Beijing more than most of them. I could have easily been their tour guide to a great part of the city.

That night they read as much as they could about the park. They used the internet, books, talking with other students who had been there, all trying to prepare to make a good impression on the English instructor. That was a lot of studying as each building at the Summer Palace Park has a complex, involved history and they couldn’t possibly cover it all. No one knew who I would call upon for what area, so they had to familiarize themselves with as much as they could. A group study session was in order. Their monitor or group leader marshaled the effort, making sure they were all up to snuff.

Early the next morning they were all standing in front of my apartment building waiting for the teacher to walk with them the two blocks out of the campus to the Third Ring Road (XiSanHuan Beiliu) to catch taxis to the Summer Palace. Of course, the monitor, a person of prestige and stature, must have the instructor in his car. I never did have a class with a female monitor. Interesting.

Off we went, careening though traffic with all the taxis trying to stay together. At the Palace gate, the monitor purchased the tickets for all of us from the class fund. All the students make contributions to this fund from their meager stipend to pay class expenses such as taking the teacher to dinner and to sites.
In we went. Everywhere on the grounds were signs describing what we were seeing. They were in Chinese and “English,” (read Chinglish). If they read real quickly, they could have gotten the gist of the scene. Though this was "cheating," I turned a blind eye. They thought they are putting something over on me.
As we walked through the gardens, palaces, gates and outbuildings, we stopped and I appointed two students to be the "tour guides." The first two were nervous and unsure of themselves, but they were getting a little coaching from the sidelines from students who seemed to have remembered the lessons a little more clearly (or read the Chinese portion of the signage more thoroughly).

As we progressed, I notice our little group of twenty-three has increased considerably. We had gathered into our flock several other "foreigners," and some Chinese who wanted to practice their English by listening to the English speaking Chinese tour guides. After a while the students notice this too. Some are a little shy when it came to their turn to be a guide because they now have a following of folks they don't know.

Throughout the morning we visited many places, and as we expected to spend the day, we had brought a picnic lunch (a suggestion I had made in class yesterday). We ate anis scented sunflower and pumpkin seeds. (I break a filling, but don't tell a soul.) They have brought iced green tea, walnut chews and sesame crackers. It is enough for all of us without bankrupting their meager budgets eating at the terribly overpriced food stands in the park.

Afternoon arrived, we have had "a little rest," sitting under a gigantic gingko tree, and then we continue on the tour. We could have continued on for a week and never have seen everything. We only managed to travel the northeast quarter of the facility where many of the more famous structures were located.

As we were walking along, in my usual devious way, I planned an event. I was known for throwing a monkey wrench into class lessons by asking odd questions or making odd requests which made them think outside the box. (They often spent a great deal of time trying to anticipate what the teacher would do or say in order to help them learn and be prepared.) I am looking for a certain kind of tourist and at last I had found them.

I chose Susie and Molly as the next students to practice their English. My students always chose English names for themselves, a practice I did not encourage.

"Susie and Molly, see that couple over there with the small baby?"

"Yes, Miss Deon."

"Well, they have a new Chinese girl baby that they have just adopted. I want you to go over and talk with them.” (Horrified looks on their faces and concern on the faces of all the students, how can this be?) ”You can ask them about their new baby." I chose these two women for this project because they both have a child and were very proud of them.

"Oh no, Miss Deon! We do not know them. They are foreigners."

"Oh yes. They are tourists and would love to learn a little about the Chinese. I have been watching and no one speaks to them. They may feel they are not welcome here. You may go and welcome them and tell them they have a beautiful baby girl. Ask her name."

Off they went, very hesitantly. I looked around me and the whole remaining class had closed ranks and was squeezed together in fear, peering from behind the tree at the two women as they approach the couple. They were curious, but also concerned for them.

The two walked up to the couple, who were reading one of the poorly translated signs, and ask if they could speak to them. Then they introduced themselves. The couple introduced themselves. They ask about the baby and were introduced to the baby, praising her beauty. They asked the couple a little about their stay in China and about the process of adoption. Did they like the country? Would they return? How long had they been here? A general conversation, well within their comprehension of English.
Soon they were laughing and having a good time talking with these foreigners. The clustered group of students began to say that it didn’t look as though the women were having a bad time. They looked like they were enjoying themselves and the foreign couple seemed to be enjoying the conversation as well. The women told them why they are there and pointed out their classmates clustered under the nearby tree, who had not quite succeeding in trying to hide behind it.

They said their goodbyes to the foreigners and returned to the group. They were surrounded and enclosed into the group as though they need protection, as though they had just returned from a diplomatic mission into hostile territory.
When I asked them how it went, they told us it was great and they were very proud of themselves for speaking to total strangers. All their classmates relaxed a bit and were anxious to ask questions.

English, speak English,” I told them. They had lapsed back to Mandarin in their excitement. I had a rule during class time, no Chinese languages, only English during class. I always threatened to give them a zero for the day if they violated this particular rule.

The baby is a girl (of course) and they have named her Lily. She is from Anhui Province. She is 12 weeks old. They said they liked China very much, and would like to return with Lily to visit when she is older. They adopted her 2 weeks ago and are seeing Beijing before they travel home.”

"From what country had they come?"

"Norway, Miss Deon, but their English was terrible!" Actually, their English was very good, it was just that my students recognized Chinglish and American English readily and the Norwegian accent had given these tourists a bad rating on the language skills, but this was the very reason I have asked them to engage in this conversation. Just a little change in accent could make the English language unintelligible to them. Since many would go to countries other than the US and England, they would hear many different accents and would need to be able to decipher the “English” with the differing accents.

During our stay in China, we had the opportunity to host several friends from home. The first guest was a pilot who had an overnight in Beijing before his return flight. As we mentioned in the chapter about the apartment, we managed to “acquire” some foam mattresses and he slept on those on the living room rug for the night of his stay. Though this was an OK arrangement, it wasn’t the best. We needed something that would work better.

I consulted with my foreign affairs officer, Zhou Wei, as to how to deal with this type of thing. She told me that one wing of the Foreign Expert’s Housing was a hotel, rooms without kitchen. These rooms had twin beds like ours and a bathroom. They are about $20 US per night. This seemed like the perfect arrangement. It was a stone’s throw from our apartment, just through reception and up a different stairway. We went to check them out.

Same pink “marble” floors. Beds with a little better mattresses, bathtub, sink and toilet. TV, and the ubiquitous hot water thermoses. Perfect!

Our next guests were two ladies coming from Whidbey. They were traveling to China on frequent flyer miles and didn’t have to pay airfare. They were ecstatic that the room would cost them each $10 per day for the duration of their stay. Of course they would coming and they would be staying for several weeks, why not? It wasn’t costing them anything.

Nice, we were looking forward to seeing them and the goodies they brought with them were just extra frosting on the cake, or chocolate chips in the cookies! We also had a small list of things we needed brought with them that we couldn’t seem to find here. They were happy to be carriers for us as this would give them more room in their suitcases for goodies purchased on their trip. The each brought one large suitcase with another suitcase tucked inside for the shopping spree they intended.
Now the BIG problem. How could we show them around? We were teaching most days of the week, both of us, and couldn’t get time to take foreigners sightseeing. That would only leave evenings and weekends to take them anyplace. They couldn’t just sit in the hotel all day.

I planned a scheme. (Our first guest arrived on a day we had off, so we could be his guide.) Our two women guests needed guides, at least until they were comfortable on their own. Students to the rescue. They had done well as my guides at the Summer Palace. Why not turn them loose on my guests.

Molly and LiLi? Tomorrow you will have a special assignment. You will not be coming to class; you will be taking my two American lady friends to the Summer Palace. They will pay for your taxis, admission to the sites and lunches. You will be their guides. The following day you will come back to class and give a report on your adventures.”
Oh no Miss Deon, we do not know them!”

If you do not want to do it I can assign it to another and give each of you a zero for tomorrow and the next day’s lessons. Is that what you would like?”

Oh no, we will do it.”

Fine, meet us at 8:30 tomorrow in front of the Foreign Expert’s Housing and I will introduce you. You will NOT speak any Chinese to each other. If you do I will find out and you will not get credit for the day. You may only speak Chinese to ask directions, talk to taxi drivers, etc. It would be rude to speak in Chinese it front of your guests.” (Their instructor, me, the despot, giving them instruction.)

They had already studied up on the Summer Palace, so this was not too difficult a task. I did tell them the guest probably would not eat food that was too fiery. Be sure to order a lunch that was something that they, the students, liked as the guests would be paying for it. (Lunch turned out to be KFC as the students particularly like it and they thought the Americans could tell them if it tasted different in the US. I was not sure the ladies from the states had ever eaten in a KFC.) I also told them to be sure to enjoy themselves and the sites they would see. Since their stipends were so small and they probably wouldn’t see many sites during their stay in Beijing. It was supposed to be a treat for the US guests as well as for the students, even though they were not sure about that.

The students were there right on schedule. I introduced our friends and off they went. Students nervous and friends delighted to have some one-on-one time with Chinese students. The students got to practice their English all day and my friends got virtually free guides.

When they returned in the evening I was waiting in front of the Foreign Expert’s Housing. Four very tired, very happy, giggling ladies returned. They had lots to tell and had more fun than any of them could have imagined. I asked my friends, “Did they speak any Chinese?” “No they only spoke to the taxi driver in Chinese.” “Great, you pass for today, you can report your day in class tomorrow.”

I think all four slept the sleep of the dead that night. All were a little nervous, but all had walked for miles and worked hard at speaking and understanding and it was very tiring. Up and at it early the next day and off to see new sites with new guides to lead the way!

This was the system we used whenever guests came to visit us in Beijing. We had many guests come once they understood that they had cheap hotel and personal guides for their stays.

Weekends and dinners we escorted our guests ourselves and took them to some of our favorite places and restaurants. It turned out to be a perfect arrangement overall. Students practiced English and saw the sites, guests had personal guides and we got to see our favorite places again when we went places with them during our time off.

The last type of guides involves the students who acted as OUR guides when we had opportunities to travel to their hometowns during times we had off to travel, but this will be a different book.

* Wikipedia’s definition of Pinyin: Pinyin, formally Hanyu Pinyin, is the official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in China, Taiwan, and Singapore. It is often used to teach Standard Chinese and spell Chinese names in foreign publications and may be used as an input method to enter Chinese characters into computers.

The pinyin system was developed in the 1950s based on earlier forms of Romanization. It was published by the Chinese government in 1958 and revised several times. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted pinyin as the international standard in 1982. The system was adopted as the official standard in Taiwan in 2009, where it is used for Romanization alone rather than for educational and computer input purposes.
Hànyǔ means the spoken language of the Han people and pīnyīn literally means "spelled-out sounds".

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