Thursday, March 6, 2008


As part of my adventure of living in China, I've done a few things that I wouldn't normally do. Last night I had dinner with a group of Chinese who were hankering for rabbit, so we went to a hotpot restaurant and ate all kinds of rabbit meat. Some of it was boiled, some was roasted with seasoning (I found my rabbit leg had little meat for the amount of bone); all of it tasted like chicken. Today for lunch we went to a Tibetan restaurant and had all kinds of yak meat. Well, a few weeks ago I got an email from someone asking if I wanted a trial lesson from eChineseLearning. (If you google it, I think their website shows up as the first one.) Normally I wouldn't bother with that kind of thing, but I figured why not.

eChineseLearning is a service out of Beijing that teaches people Chinese online using Skype. They really take advantage of emerging technology to provide a professional product using easily accessible tools. Everyone can download Skype, and everyone can get a microphone (I hear Macs even come with one in the computer). All that's left, then, is to schedule a time that you're free, then log on and have a session with your private tutor. They have materials and trained teachers, all you have to have is money. It usually costs $20/hr, which they say is standard for language tutors.

I'm not their average prospect. First, I'm in China and all I need to do to have a conversation with someone in Chinese is walk outside. I've already taken Chinese, and after a short Skype interview was placed into an "advanced" level. (I do know how to write the word for chrysanthemum, after all.) I had no intention of continuing their service, either. I was like one of those people who go to a car lot because they're offering free hot dogs and soda, but don't want to buy a new pick-up truck.

One more complicating factor was our Internet connection. The mic I brought from home has been lost in transit, and my computer won't connect to the Internet through a cable. I scheduled my trial lesson in the morning one of the days I didn't have language class, and hoped that I'd be able to get in to an apartment with Internet, find a mic, and have a good enough Internet connection to try to learn Chinese over.

Somehow, all those pieces fit together, and after a few failed attempts to log in to Skype, I connected and started my lesson. The teacher had a video hooked up so she could write characters (or pinyin) on the blackboard behind her. There was a delay of one or two seconds with the video, which was annoying, but other than that I thought things went pretty well. I was feeling overloaded with all the vocab I had to learn for class the next day, but I tried to absorb some of the words she was teaching me. We talked mostly in Chinese, which I found amazing. I think if I had continued the lessons, my teacher would have really been helpful, but with only half an hour she didn't know where I was enough to help my Chinese.

After the lesson I found out that the catch wasn't a sales pitch to continue eChineseLearning, like I had imagined it would be, but it was actually that they wanted to get a write-up on my blog. I think that's almost like being paid to write. I got $20 worth of a Chinese lesson, I am delivering them a review. Neither, I think, is quite the way we would have had it had the payment been different--I already have a Chinese teacher, and they don't have any control over what I write--but overall, it's a pretty good deal. If I'm feeling good about myself, I could say that they got the impression that I have some kind of influence over people through my blog. More generally, though, it's just another example of them using new technology to make a profit. I wonder how old the person is who started it? To be Chinese, familiar with computers, business-savvy, and wealthy enough to start a company seems like an unusual mix. Maybe it was started by more than one person.

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