Hello, grandpa!

(China Daily)
Updated: 2011-06-07 14:06
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Hello, grandpa!

"You are a good guy!" a Nepalese man tells Yu Huichun during language practice. Photos by Ju Huanzong / Xinhua

Hello, grandpa!

Yu sits with his granddaughter on the bus.

Hello, grandpa!

Yu enjoys photos sent back by the foreigners who once participated in the English corner.

Hello, grandpa!

A tourist from Switzerland chats with Yu.

Old-timer, smitten by learning English, invites foreigners to come chat at Hangzhou's biggest study corner.

From a wide range of hobbies available for the retired, few would adopt practicing English. And even fewer would devote the energy to it that 90-year-old Yu Huichun does.

Over the past three decades, Yu has invited any English-speaking foreigners he meets on his way to an English corner, now the most well-known one in Hangzhou, hoping they will join the Chinese gathered to practice English.

Yu's enthusiasm for English dates to the early days of last century, when he worked in a foreign bank in Shanghai. One day when he accidentally found some people practicing English in Liugongyuan Park - on the picturesque West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province - he immediately joined them and fell in love with the place.

However, after a few visits Yu found almost all people there were Chinese, and the sight of a foreigner was rare. So he assumed the role of recruiter.

It's not easy, though. Every day Yu would start from home at 8 am and take two bus trips before getting off and walking to the park. Then he would try to strike up a conversation in English with any foreigner he encountered, asking where they were from and inviting them to the English corner.

Eight out of 10 would refuse for various reasons, Yu says, and some even met him with suspicion. It is quite normal to be refused, says Yu, laughing. but you have to forget saving "face" when you solicit foreigners in this way.

Now, though, there are always some foreigners, mostly students and teachers, who follow Yu to the park. He's happy to watch, and sometimes he also joins in the conversation.

Over the past 30 years, more than 6,000 Chinese and foreigners have gathered for the English corner. Yu still keeps a notebook full of their signatures and he also cherishes a large folder of photos and letters sent by the foreigners later.

Best of all, many young people have improved their English and changed their lives by attending the English corner.

One girl, who once could barely speak a few simple English words, could speak English fluently after two years practicing in the English corner, which enabled her to find a good job in a famous hotel in Singapore. Every time she went back to Hangzhou she would stop by the English corner to see Yu, the grandpa who "helped her win a pair of powerful wings so she could fly high", as she says.

Every weekend, Yu is still seen among the young, eager faces in the park. Sometimes he chats with one or two foreigners; sometimes he will introduce a student too shy to speak to a foreigner and encourage him to open his mouth.

"Most foreigners actually like to communicate," he says.