Learning Chinese at 76

Guest post from 76-year-old Ralph McCuen who studied with Omeida last month.

After attempting to learn Spanish and Portuguese at many countries in Central and South America, and one crack at Russian in the Ukraine, I decided it was time to try on Chinese.  I knew that at the age of 76 it was going to be a challenge.  But what the heck? You’re only young once.

I contacted Anya, the school coordinator, Yangshuo Omeida Language College, Email: omeida@hotmail.com, who filled me in on all the particulars, and in perfect English.  She sent me a packet of about eight different colored pages, all in Chinese, which I then forwarded to Visa Express, 3120 Southwest Freeway, Ste 108, Houston, Texas 77098-4520 with my passport. Nobody gets into China without a visa.  The agency returned my passport with a multiple entry visa in about six days.

American AirlinesAmerican Airlines scheduled me for a 16 hour flight, direct from Dallas to Hong Kong. Then it was an overnight at the Sky City Marriott and on to a Dragon Air flight to Guilin, China the following day.  Anya had a very modern taxi waiting for me and an hour and a half later I was unpacking my gear at the Tiffany Hostel, one block from the school.  Air conditioned, large TV on the wall with CCTV in America playing, and my own private bathroom with shower.  I was beginning to think that this was going to be a very pleasant month.

That same night, Anya told me to report to the Yangshuo English College, which was just one block away, to have dinner with all the new students at their school.  I was thinking now this is a very friendly bunch of people.  I had no idea.  That night, Ruth, the school coordinator, walking myself and nine lovely young Chinese women on a two mile trip to a restaurant in Xi Jie (West Street), a tourest area in Yangshuo.  We all sat around a huge round table loaded with Chinese food.  During the dinner each girl would name some object in Chinese.  I then repeated the word and gave its name in English.  They would then attempt to say the English word.  Lots of fun especially with my attempting to use chopsticks.  The restaurant staff finally brought me a knife and fork.

The next day was Monday, the first day of class.  My 24 year old teacher, Andrea, had taught Mandarin for two years in Korat, Thailand, and Yangshuo was her first job teaching foreigners.  I have to admit that she made the class fun, even though I and my other American classmate gave her a very hard time.  She accepted our baby steps at learning Chinese with good humor and grace.

Anya told me that I was going to have a partner to study with, a Chinese girl studying English.  What she did not tell me was that I was going to have two very pretty girls, about 25 years old, who would be spending every evening with me.  Grace was learning English to become an entrepreneur and open her own business.  Joy was on loan from her company where she was a computer software designer.  Of course, I probably helped them learn more English  than they impacted my Chinese, but what a great way for an old man to spend a month.

Xi Jie, Yangshuo

Xi Jie, Yangshuo

Every night we picked a different restaurant.  Some nights it was German or French and sometimes we visited a very modern Chinese restaurant where Grace had to make reservations.

The staff at the hostel were also great fun to be around.  For some unknown reason Elaine and the other girls all began to call me Grandpa, which, having 11 grandchildren, was not a foreign term to me.  And I have to say, they became my family for the month I was in China.

Every two days I took all my diirty clothes one half block to a very amiable young couple who cleaned all my clothes, and pressed and put on hangers my shirts and jeans.  Each trip cost about $12.

I was able to obtain Chinese yuan at an ICBC ATM about two blocks away so I always had plenty of cash.  But of course, it was difficult to spend any money since everything in China appears to be really inexpensive.

After a month at the school, they gave me a diploma, took my picture with my teacher, and the next day had a taxi at the hostel ready for my return to Guilin, and my subsequent  return flights to Hong Kong and Dallas.

One thing I neglected to say is that there were only about four taxis in the entire city.  So every afternoon I would put the two girls on the back of one motorcycle and I would climb on to another one for our trip to West Street.  I paid the equivalent of about $4 total for each trip which took about 10 minutes.

Expenses for the trip were minimal.  My flights from El Paso to Guilin were about $1,660; my two overnights in Hong Kong (at a luxury hotel) were about $600; the entire month’s cost of the school including education, room and board was about $1,000; and I spent about $70 for my taxis in El Paso. The visa was $260. If you consider that the cost of any school in Europe is going to run you about $5,000 for school and transportation, this Chinese school is a real bargain.

Finally, I just want to say that you will hear many bad things about China.  Don’t believe it.  They are the nicest people on this earth and have a bright future ahead of them.  They want the same things Americans want:  peace, and an opportunity for themelves and their children to create a better world.

Anyone who would like more information on this Chinese school can contact me at: wtexas451@earthlink.net

Ralph McCuen

Ralph with teacher Andrea

Ralph with teacher Andrea

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