But the first doubts didn’t take long to surface. I soon realised I was going round and round one towering block after another in increasing despair in the scant natural light that remained. Suddenly I was in a street I didn’t recognize. It was packed with atmosphere and colour. And people. I was taken aback. It was a bitter-sweet moment. But it didn’t last long. There was nothing at all sweet about my reality.  My morale was dipping and was soon at a low ebb. I breathed deeply and tried to take stock of the situation. Grimly, I sensed it could only get worse. Whichever way I looked at it, I was in dire straits.

I wasn’t expecting this tenebrous scenario

They say that around half a million people speak some English in Shanghai. Jeez, that’s almost the combined population of four English cities the size of Norwich, Huddersfield, Leicester or Cheltenham. Um… but in a metropolitan area that’s got 30 million inhabitants, that’s only one in 60. Alas, just a drop in the ocean as far as I was concerned. Find him, find her! During what seemed hours, what I really wanted to find was that metro station. Where could I possibly  have gone wrong. It  had seemed like a pretty straight walk to me. But that was in broad daylight, I reflected miserably.

I finally encountered one of the half million who spoke English and hooray! Not just a little but he actually spoke it quite well.

He was a university student, short, twenty-something. His name was Tony and mine was Pat. He was going to a rock-concert. Alas, he couldn’t tell me where the metro was. My hopes were dashed.

But we were still standing our ground. He wanted to talk, I wanted to talk. It occurred to neither of us that all he, being Chinese, had to do was ask one of his numerous countrymen who were coming and going up and down the busy thoroughfare, striding about their business.

I should have said to him “Why don’t you ask one of these people passing where the metro station is?” but it just didn’t dawn on me.

However, this young man seemed to be hell-bent on practising his English on me rather than getting me out of the predicament I was in which was the whole point of our one-off earthly encounter, we would never meet again. But I was so anxious to get back to my hotel that I wasn’t thinking straight either.


He made a couple of poppycock comments about wanting to go to America to learn the phrasal verbs because they were  more difficult to learn here in China. He may have had a valid point but I choose not to examine the validation side of it. He threw me a couple of questions about English grammar. Stupidly I  considered them and being an upstanding educationalist, I answered them conscientiously. I should have fobbed him off with any old short answer and got him back onto my wavelength. But once a teacher, always a teacher!

Paradoxically I found myself in the ludicrous situation where I was trying to help him with his English. The questions came fast and furious. Is British English different from American English? Is it as different as Cantonese is from Mandarin? (how the fuck would I know?) Does your queen speak the best English? (you’re asking me? For a start i don’t have a bloody queen, I’m not even a monarchist!)

But I was learning fast. He asked me my profession.


He looked at me confused as though he were hearing a back-to-front phrasal verb. But it seemed to shut him up and he pressed no further on that score. He looked at me in silence for a few seconds.  I found it somewhat awkward but amusing too. I could see he was itching to formulate another interrogation. I knew it wasn’t going to be just one, he was lining up a battery of questions. This was a guy who wasn’t going to stay down, now that he’d found me…

Being an experienced language teacher, I realized he was trying to adapt his limited vocabulary to any half-baked concept he could latch onto in order to practise, however stupid. And I was his victim! He was trying to fit square pegs into round holes which really only works between two good friends sitting on a bench on the lawn of a mental asylum. The upshot was that I was getting questions like do they speak American English in England? How many people speak English in Britain?

 The smart answer I was tempted to give him would probably have been lost on him but it was neither the time nor the place.

Then the guy produced his cellphone and asked me if he could take a picture of us. Before I could say Jack Robinson he had taken a selfie of us both. More than make me angry, his insolence astonished me. Chinky monkey! That was one for his CV for sure!

This obviously isn’t Tony and me. But it’s a perfect depiction of what he did to me. Cheeky monkey!


All this was leading me nowhere and I waved him away quickly with as much a diplomatic smile as I could muster. He stood there and seemed disappointed to see me go. I glanced back to make sure he wasn’t following me. Mercifully, he wasn’t. Good riddance! Subconsciously, I reflected that this was one guy I would never lay eyes on again.

I moved towards the nearest street corner to see if I could get a clearer perception of where I was, for all the good it did me. I was becoming exasperated. I noticed there were more people in the street. I felt a right buffoon. I stood there in the gathering gloom doing 360 degree turns again and again like a revolving Barbie doll in a fairground, all that was missing was the music. Two young schoolgirls in uniform stopped and stared inquisitively at me as I kept turning. They probably thought I was just another one of the human statues which perform on the streets of Shanghai to the delight of its citizens. When they realised I was the real deal, they  got scared and ran off giggling. It was the only laugh I got because the rest of the people seemed to look at me contempuously as though I were some sort of alien who dropped in from another planet. Not even a smiley eye to cast my way, because alien or otherwise, my face must have been a poem of distress. I just needed a little compassion to alleviate a tiny bit my desperation. I was just as human as they were. Already I started to wonder if I’d dismissed Tony too soon. I think I knew the answer.

To be continued…

NATIVE SPEAKERS: Please do not cross this line