Illustration: Peter C. Espina
Beijing's northeast county of Miyun, known for its reservoir and the idyllic Simatai section of the Great Wall, recently caused controversy when it announced plans to build an English-speaking town where Putonghua is banned.
The 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) project still hinges on government approval, but is ostensibly aimed at promoting tourism among China's Anglophile students. It has drawn the ire of Web users, but why is everyone so upset and what is a better way forward?
As a foreigner living in China, I am in no position to disparage the value of immersion in learning a language. Indeed, a few months on the campus of a Chinese university did more for my Putonghua than years of Spanish classes back in US. But what is the next best solution for Chinese students studying English who are not able to immerse themselves in English overseas?
The proposed solution seems to be bringing the language environment to the students. By constructing 16 city blocks of traditional European architecture where English is the exclusive language spoken, the project's developers hope to lure language students and other tourists who want to experience life outside China without leaving Beijing.
But without even breaking ground, a sensitive historical issue for China has already been unearthed.
The "unequal treaties" imposed by Western powers on Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) China created spheres of foreign influence on sovereign Chinese territory that continued until World War II. One only needs to read J.G. Ballard's 1984 novel Empire of the Sun to see examples of life in foreign concessions such as the Shanghai International Settlement. A frequently quoted epitaph from the era is a park sign that read: "No dogs or Chinese allowed."
It's understandable why any place in China labeled "no Chinese" would be offensive. What in another country might be just another quirky theme park idea in China is a reminder of an insulting chapter of history. I suspect it might not be greeted any more fondly in other countries, where people also do not appreciate being told what not to do.
I often ask English-speaking Chinese people how they learnt English in the hopes of applying their secret method to my own Chinese language studies. Surprisingly, I have not found any correlation between English fluency and overseas study. I have also not found any correlation between English fluency and academic major. Rather, the secret appears to be "watching American TV shows."
The fact is that simply being in a foreign language environment is not enough. There are some Chinese people who never studied overseas yet speak English better than their counterparts who studied overseas. Watching foreign films and TV shows, reading foreign books and websites - this is the best way to immerse oneself in English.
Miyun should be commended for its willingness to bring the world to Chinese people's doorstep, even if it's already been done online. Through the power of the Internet, Chinese Web users already have the opportunity to experience foreign cultures or spread Chinese culture, converse with their peers in English or any other language they wish to learn.
Rather than telling people what not to do on their holiday, a better way would be to make the Internet more open so that people can learn what they want to learn any day.