Remember when back in April, I was all gung-ho to begin English conversation tutoring with a Chinese physicist who was at Princeton University’s Plasma Lab for a year as a Visiting Scholar?  I even got two posts out of the introductory materials I was given to get started with.  (“Hints on English Pronunciation for Foreigners” on April 18, and “Bonus for Foreigners: Why English Is So Hard” on April 19.)  I should have known better than to count chickens, or even count on one chicken, before the hatching.

Li-li and I met, by email prearrangement, on a Saturday about five weeks ago at the Princeton Student Center.  Li-li is not his real name. Also there are many Chinese Visiting Scholars at the Princeton Plasma Lab (“PPL”). So I’m not compromising him with anything I write here.  I’m also certain he will never read this post.  (He can read English, with some difficulty, but prefers not to, if it can be avoided.  He can also write it, with some errors and much consulting of dictionaries and grammar books in two languages. But I tell you this after five hours of attempted conversation with Li-li. I knew nothing about him when we began.)

Fred, the director of the volunteer tutoring program, had suggested we meet at the Student Center because Li-li has no car.  (Fred is not a real name either, although the person to whom I refer as Fred was entirely supportive and helpful throughout my Li-li experience and probably wouldn’t mind if I accurately identified him. But still.  I used to be a lawyer. I’m careful.)  Meeting at the Student Center was all very well for Li-li, because the university bus from PPL to the main campus runs every half-hour and stops just outside the Student Center.  But for me to reach it, I first have to park in a town garage a block and a half from campus (not free) and then walk up and down campus hills for what feels like about ten minutes although may be somewhat less. (I’m not a mountain goat anymore.)  Once, it rained. Nonetheless. I had no idea how old a Visiting Scholar might be, and perhaps an aging Chinese scholar might have more aerobic or orthopedic difficulty with Princeton’s up-and-down paths than I.

Li-li was able to identify me because there was no one else who looked more than twenty-five anywhere around the Student Center. He himself was slight and I guessed about twenty-two, although he turned out to be actually twenty-eight.  We met once a week for about an hour and a half, for five weeks. I gradually moved the meeting place closer to where I park by explaining (slowly) with the help of a campus map that he was young and I was old and therefore it was only fair that he meet me at least halfway or somewhat more than that.  (Don’t the Chinese have great cultural respect for the old?)

Our last two meetings took place at Panera, across Nassau Street from the university, and therefore actually in town.  With some hesitation, after I had (slowly) read the offerings on the board aloud to him, he chose a lemonade which he did not drink but carried away with him past several garbage bins, presumably to take home on the bus. The next time, after I had again done a (slow) recitation of the board, he chose a mango smoothie.  He knew the word “mango.”  I asked (slowly) if he knew what “yogurt” was (because that was the base liquid for the smoothie) and he said yes.  He even eagerly tasted it. But he definitely didn’t like it,  Was it too sour? He didn’t know what I meant by “sour.”  Too “sweet”?  He wasn’t sure what that word meant either.  Too” thick”? He looked at me in puzzlement.  But he carried the barely tasted and apparently disfavored smoothie away with him too.  Was it that men didn’t eat or drink with women where he came from?  Did he feel it was impolite to partake of anything during a kind of “lesson?”  But by the afternoon of the mango smoothie, I had stopped wondering.  I wanted out.

The thing is, you couldn’t converse with Li-li because he couldn’t really speak.  He had a minimal recognition vocabulary and an even smaller one available for speech.  Moreover, his pronunciation made what he did try to say incomprehensible. I was not supposed to be tutoring him in acquisition of the English language. We were only supposed to be conversing together, during the course of which I expected to have to correct pronunciation or grammar.  And I do understand that English has several consonants difficult for the Chinese tongue to pronounce.   But Li-li mangled or swallowed vowels and diphthongs as well as consonants, and also inserted vowels of his own making between syllables of words and between sentences — which made his speech musically interesting to listen to but virtually impossible to understand. Example:  I asked him where he was living in Princeton.  “Near Macclefield,” he said.  I had never heard of Macclefield.  Eventually, he printed it out for me on a napkin.  He was trying to pronounce the name of a nearby shopping center:  “Market Fair.”

He had arrived in September and would go home the following September. He had entered the free tutoring program at the end of April — after seven months in Princeton.  “Why didn’t you sign up before?” I asked. He was ashamed of his English, he said.  “So why now?”  His supervisors at PPL had sent him; they couldn’t understand what he was saying about the work he was doing.  It turned out, after I asked, that he couldn’t really understand them, either. “So have you learned anything during your time here?”  Not very much, he admitted.  When I asked how that would affect his progress towards his doctorate  — which he expected to earn in China in May or June 2016 — he said it wouldn’t.  His year in Princeton didn’t count; it was just a way of getting a pre-paid year off in another culture.

I don’t think he initially came with such fraudulent intentions. He probably had actually thought he knew enough English to survive a year in an English-speaking university, and probably China did too, because they bankrolled the whole thing.  A Visiting Scholar is not enrolled at any level at Princeton and is not evaluated. He’s not a Princeton graduate student or a post-doc. He is simply an advanced student, working on a foreign doctorate, who is allowed to be at Princeton and to work for a year in his field under supervision, on recommendations from faculty in his own country. Li-li must have been an outstanding Physics doctoral candidate in China to have qualified as someone for whom his government was willing to pay transportation, Princeton tuition, and $1600 a month living expenses. (Princeton provided a room in a student house for $800 a month. Naturally, the other occupants of the house were Chinese.) But you cannot learn if you don’t understand the language.

I tried.  He had an iPad, which he could switch from Chinese to English. When we first met, he said he wanted to learn what he could because he hoped to return, after obtaining his doctorate, as a post doc, and post docs have to teach as well as do research. So I went beyond the parameters of the volunteer “job” description.  I invested hours on the Internet locating and printing out pages of consonant exercises for “r” and “l” and “s” and voiceless “th” and voiced “th” for him to practice between our meetings.  I found a lovely English lady on YouTube who spent fifteen minutes of Internet time on “lalalala” and “l” words.  I told him about wordreference.com. We located a thesaurus on his tablet. (These last two measures were intended to help enlarge his vocabulary.) When he came back the following week, he hadn’t practiced a thing and had even lost the websites I’d found for him.  I suggested viewing reruns of TV programs, listening to radio, speaking out in stores instead of pointing.  But he went on hanging out with Chinese grad students, Chinese post-docs, and other Chinese Visiting Scholars — and never spoke or listened to English at all, except with me.

He went to New York on weekends — with other Chinese.  He accompanied a Chinese friend on a scam of a bus tour run in Chinese for Chinese that used up seven hours on the road getting them to Niagara Falls (apparently a big deal for inland Chinese), where they had a morning on a boat for photo ops. Then more bus-riding to Boston, where they drove quickly past MIT and Harvard before getting on another boat for a half-hour tour of Boston Harbor and the waterfront.  Then back on the bus for seven hours more of looking at interstate highways. On his phone, he showed me small photographs of the Falls taken from a distance, of which he was very proud.

He was currently spending quite a bit of time studying for the knowledge test to get a New Jersey driver’s license. Then he would be able to learn to drive in the car of a Chinese friend and also pass the driving test before going home.  “What do you need a New Jersey driver’s license for in China?” I asked. He very haltingly tried to explain that if he had a New Jersey license to drive he could just exchange it for a Chinese one for a small fee.  But to learn to drive in China was 6000 yen, or about $1000.  And then it cost even more to actually get the license after you passed the Chinese test.

“But Li-li,” I said.  “What good is a Chinese driving license if you don’t have a car?  You’re still a student.”  It wasn’t going to be a problem, he assured me.  After he got his doctorate, he would get a job and in a few months of savings have enough for a car.  “New?  Or used?” I asked. “Oh new,” he assured me.  Everyone he knew bought new.  Poor Li-li.  He didn’t know I remembered everything he’d ever said, or tried to say.

I put early loose talk about heart-felt hopes for a post-doc in America together with later revelations of his clear intention to buy a new car in China — which he would be licensed to drive — as soon after he got a job as he could.  To this I added (1) his disinclination to follow through on any suggestion or any result of internet research I had offered; (2) the cost of parking in the garage every week; (3) the value of my volunteer preparation time and time with him in a mutual agony of incomprehension; (4) and the fact that Princeton in the afternoon was getting very hot and would get hotter as we moved into summer — and suddenly decided I had had enough.

I sort of liked Li-li, despite really not knowing him at all.  But whatever his original intention had been when he applied for a year in America, he had soon seen that not much learning was going to happen, given the state of his English, and (it seemed to me) had begun to use his time at PPL as a sort of cover for just hanging out with his countrymen in a foreign culture, thereby occupying space and consuming teaching time that Princeton could have offered to another — and ripping off the Chinese government as well.

I emailed an SOS to Fred.  He knew exactly what to do.  Here’s the responsive email he sent me:

Hi Nina:
Sometimes it happens and it’s not your fault. I suggest you tell him that unexpected new plans will require you to be away for extended periods of time for the foreseeable future and you can no longer continue tutoring — and perhaps I can find another tutor for him. After you do that, let me
know. If he contacts me again I shall unfortunately not have another tutor available who can tutor during the summer months. Probably this is best: no hard feelings.

Thank you for your gallant efforts!  It wasn’t a failure on your part.  Frankly I don’t care to assist someone trying to rip off the systems on our  dime. Hopefully I can find a much better match for you come September. Have  a great summer.

Best regards,

Disappointed to learn I immediately followed Fred’s suggestion?  (Chicanery at an illustrious American university?) I’m disappointed in me, too.  But Li-li will survive the loss, and hopefully also pass his driving test, so that he goes home with something he didn’t have when he came. I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere.  Sauve qui peut.  (Save yourself if you can.) Or, less selfishly put, you can’t win ’em all.

Maybe, as Fred suggests, I’ll have better luck next time.


  1. Oh, that was hard yakka, Nina. I hope Li li shouted you a few nice meals or at least a decent fried rice. I thought all Chinese get English taught at school in China. Do all kids in America get taught at least one other language?

    I can’t imagine what it must be like to learn Chinese. In Holland I had three foreign languages starting with English at primary school.

    It seems English taught as a foreign language in Holland put me ahead of the locals here in Australia. After arrival, my written English was way ahead of the Aussies.

    I like some praise now, Nina!


    • Your written English is indeed praise-worthy, Gerard.

      I believe all Chinese do get English in school. Unfortunately, it’s almost always taught by other Chinese who never learned to speak it properly. It’s “book” English (maybe). And Li-li was a year away from a doctorate, and therefore a long way past the equivalent of high school where the last of his English would have been taught. He probably never had to use it, whatever “it” was, after that. And no, he bought me no food. He bought his own lemonade and mango smoothie, I bought my own iced coffee. It wasn’t a date! We were purchasing the opportunity to sit in a quiet cool cafe and “talk” for an hour or so.


      • Even so, I would have offered you a coffee, Nina. Never mind the date. One or two sugars, milk?

        I taught basic English on a boat between Europe and Australia. H and I were just married and on the way to Australia. The passengers were mainly Greek migrants without a word of English. It was good fun. I enjoyed it very much.

        When it came to teaching them English words for different trades they all seemed to be qualified in all trades, no matter what I pointed out. They were all equally skilled in being tailers as butchers or painters.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, of course I’ll try again. I found out about this volunteer program at the end of March, when all the international graduate students and post-docs enrolled at and by Princeton who needed help with English conversation had already been assigned to other volunteer tutors. (At the beginning of the academic year.) So it was understood that I wouldn’t be able to begin until September and I was fine with that. Then suddenly free-floating “Li-li” turned up — because his supervisors at the Plasma Lab couldn’t understand him. I think I would want a grad student or a post-doc next time, though — someone with commitment to doing well at Princeton because it will count towards his or her future career. Not that all Visiting Scholars are necessarily like Li-li, but a Princeton enrollment is at least some guarantee that the student will take what we do more seriously, and also that he or she already has sufficient command of English to be doing graded coursework or teaching beginning courses in their field.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I too am sure he will do well in China. He had to have been an academic star at his home university for China to have been willing to fund his year here. So I hope I didn’t make him sound too malign in his motives. I do think he arrived at Princeton last September genuinely believing that whatever they had taught him in China really was English and that he was going to learn a lot of new and interesting physics, especially as the Plasma Lab at Princeton is apparently very fine and the equipment powerful (whatever that means). And maybe when he learned that what he knew of “English” was woefully inadequate to actually living and working here, he really was ashamed to seek help early on. So he adjusted, and then made the best of the year here for his purposes because acquiring adequate command of our language seemed too steep a mountain. He always showed up for our meetings, and was personally very nice, if rather shy. It was simply a huge national misunderstanding as to what constitutes “English” and he was much more a victim of that than I was.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I regret that I didn’t have the good luck of your volunteer help when I was a visiting scholar in your country, Nina. But it was about that time, when I first had contacts with Chinese visitors to the west, and learned that they couldn’t bear to visit the cinema. It seems that westerners drank milk products, and they found everything about that revolting. They explained to me that milk drinking people sweat differently, and it’s enough to make you gag. And in a cinema the collective smell was unbearable. So much for the smoothie. Maybe he was embarrassed to describe the problem. I’ll bet he threw it in a trash can far enough away, so you wouldn’t see the act. Call it the delicacy of a visiting Chinese.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, that would have been fun, Shimon. Tutoring y-o-u in English conversation!

      It’s interesting what you say about the Chinese and milk products; Bill had heard the same thing about the national differences in the odor of sweat. depending on what the national imbibed. In this instance, though, “Li-li” claimed he knew what yogurt was and wanted the smoothie anyway. He had also been to American movies with his Chinese friends. So I’m not so sure his reluctance to consume the smoothie was an instance of Chinese delicacy. He behaved the same way with the lemonade. His delicacy — and he did have some, or else deference to an older person perhaps — showed itself in his inability or reluctance to end our session or part on the street until I did.


  3. I know, here in England ,we have a bad reputation for thinking everyone should speak English but I lived in Switzerland for three years and relished the chance to learn German. Mind you, German has the same alphabet ( except for the umlauts) and several words are the same , ‘finger’ for example . Many Swiss thought I might be Dutch because I spoke fluent German. Learning is power and I wish I had read your thoughts and ideas years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It used to be German for science and French for world affairs and the arts, but since WWII English has been the lingua franca of the world, so it’s not just a national prejudice in England anymore. But oh, Margaret — Learning? Power? From my thoughts and ideas? I’m just nattering on here like many people dislodged by age or exhaustion from their workplaces who need a new arena where they can continue to let some of it out! But thank you so much for what you say — even though many of my thoughts and ideas were quite different in those “years ago” when I was younger and more nubile!


  4. What a shame, and a wasted opportunity for this young man. He may realize that one day. There is so much more to the study of a foreign language than just word translation. You ended with a note of “better luck next time”. I hope you get to do this again…it’s such a noble enterprise. ❤️ Van

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think if “Li-li” had begun in September, Van, it might have seemed less of an uphill battle for him. But it was pretty clear after a while that “post-doc in America” was rather a pipe dream but also that he will do very well for himself in life back in China without English. As for the “better luck next time,” I covered this fairly thoroughly in my reply to Maggie Wilson’s earlier comment, which was similar to yours. Yes, of course I will try again, in September when the next academic year comes round — hopefully with an international student working towards a Princeton graduate degree or else a post-doc already fluent enough in English to be teaching courses in conjunction with research. Under the right circumstances I understand it’s not only “noble” — it’s also fun!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Nina, I read your response to Maggie. (by the way…also one of my favorites). I suspect it would be fun. Culturally speaking, there is so much we can always learn from each other. ☺ Van

        Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure “Li-li” will remember me — an older woman in a position of some authority relative to him. He was a country boy, and had never lived in a sizable city, although he said his village was “near” Shanghai. Thus, when he spoke about family size in China, he said his “father” could have only one child because he married after Chairman Mao came to power, but before that, his “grandfather” had had three, so he had an uncle and, as it turned out when I asked, also an aunt. I wondered why he had not spoken of his “parents” and “grandparents” and had left out of his account of births in his extended family both his mother and grandmother — but decided not to ask, as his English wasn’t good enough to enter into a discussion of culturally divergent views on the importance of women to anything. Dispiriting? Yes, a little. But mainly because part of me felt I should continue slogging along with him through the long hot summer ahead as I had undertaken to do — so that giving up was a kind of failure. I have, as Bill says, a punitive super-ego. 🙂


  5. Jools

    It should have been a much more engaging and less dispiriting experience and I imagine it’s worth another try. A more committed student will make better use of the opportunity and be a much more rewarding assignment for you.

    Your experience reminded me of a similar volunteer assignment I undertook a few years ago, to mentor a gentleman recently arrived in the UK seeking asylum. It was as part of an official mentoring scheme, offering support to immigrants who, having been given ‘leave to remain’ were learning English. I met this gentleman every 3 or 4 weeks for 18 months, In addition to conversations about culture, family and his experiences in his home country and in England I helped him with official forms and letters, and together we met with his MP (Member of Parliament) who lent his support where it was needed. What impressed me most was my mentee’s sincerity, his dogged determination to re-establish himself in a new country, and his genuine desire to make use of every opportunity which could assist him to progress to his goal. It was a special moment, attending his Citizenship ceremony a year or two later.

    Liked by 1 person

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