BEIJING – When Zhi Lijiang first signed up to be an Olympic volunteer for the 2008 Beijing Games, she could hardly have imagined she would be playing the role of a Canadian tourist in English and etiquette classes.
The classes are all part of Beijing’s effort to get its population to speak English to welcome the millions of foreigners expected to flood to the city in this Olympic year.
Worried that its citizens’ notoriously poor command of the language will embarrass the country and lead to unfortunate misunderstandings, the Chinese government has embarked on a massive programme to teach the population basic English.
Some of the preparations, though, can look a little odd to foreigners.
Dressed up in a big blond wig, sunglasses, gold earrings and silk scarf, Zhi, 63, pretends to be a Canadian tourist while her classmates take turns talking with her.
“I am from Canada. This is my first time to China,” she intones in a thick Beijing accent.
“Welcome to Beijing, the host city of the 2008 Olympic Games,” another replies to her, standing in the front of the classroom.
Zhi rehearses three times a week with a class of over 100 citizens, all over the age of 50, to practise English phrases and etiquette to help foreign guests visiting Beijing for the Games.
Zhi and her friends all live in Beijing’s Dongsi Olympic Community, the only one of its kind in the city, not far from the Forbidden City. By teaching the residents English, it’s expected they might be able to give directions to lost tourists.
The neighbourhood of traditional courtyards and alleyways was specially renamed for the Games, and is what the organisers hope will become a model for other parts of the city during the Olympics.
The oldest couple in the classroom are Lu Baoli and Wang Xiuqin, aged 72 and 65, who have lived just around the corner from the classroom for most of their lives.
They attend a two-hour class every Saturday and attend an English corner and salon every Wednesday.
“I recommend visiting the Great Wall; it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World,” Wang patiently teaches her husband Lu out of a government-issued manual.
Lu struggles to follow.
“I cannot remember the words sometimes, I am too stupid,” he adds bashfully.
But both religiously attend their classes, and complete homework and other exercises at home together.
“I always keep a notebook in my pocket, so I can take a look whenever I have the time. I also memorise words when I am walking,” said Wang.
Wang and Lu even cut out and collect the Fuwa doll stamps and stickers, the official Olympic mascots, to keep for their grandchildren.
“I want my grandson to see his grandmother in the Olympics,” said Wang, flipping through her Chinese postal book.
There’s no doubting ordinary Beijingers’ Olympic ardour, despite the constant criticism of the country’s human rights record from overseas groups and domestic dissidents, though China’s tightly controlled state media makes no mention of it.
The Olympic drive has spurred an English learning frenzy all over the country. People are learning English to be more “internationalised”, as organisers put it.
Most of the elderly residents living in the alleyways around Dongsi Olympic Village are excited to be part of the preparations as Beijing gears up to show China off to the world.
“Many changes have taken place. The alleyways are being repainted and renovated,” said a government official in the community, surnamed Zheng. “We want to look our best.”
The residents are more than happy to attend the Public Welfare English Class for Citizens in the Olympic community and role-play as foreigners and volunteers.
Jian Jia, a graduate student at a Beijing university who is part of the Olympic Volunteer Programme, has been teaching the class for more than three years.
“You cannot see them as students. Their English may not be as good as that, but their enthusiasm is better. Actually some of them can speak very good English and have no problem conducting simple conversations,” Jian told Reuters.
Besides regular English courses, they also learn Olympic-related English, since most of them will be volunteers during the Games, which open on Aug. 8.
As an Olympic volunteer, the elderly volunteers are supposed to offer help to any foreigners they may encounter.
They learn English songs too, with titles such as “Smiling Beijing”.
Beijing’s Olympic organisers have amassed 400,000 English speaking recruits in preparation for the influx of foreigners.
“My games, my happiness, my contribution! Beijing belongs to everyone, welcome to Beijing, welcome to my home!” the elderly students chorus at the end of their self-produced English drama.