by Larry Feign
I need a cup of coffee. I need. Excuse Where finding? Argh! How to say it in Chinese?
I walked up and down the central shopping street of Zhongshan, a southern Chinese industrial city with mountains of copy Rolexes and fake iPhones on every corner but not a bean to be found, not even instant. I felt like a babbling helpless moron, unable to find someplace, anyplace in the entire city, to get something stronger than jasmine tea. I departed with a caffeine withdrawal headache and a determination to finally learn the most widely-spoken language on earth.
Back home, I bought a teach-yourself CD and pushed play. Out poured a stream of sentences like Shéi shì xuèsheng and Xìexie Xú xiansheng, all blended together into one long sibilant shhhhhh. I woke up with drool all over the textbook.
Maybe I should try a real teacher, I decided.
Forget classes, though. There's always someone smarter and at least one student with a big mouth, leaving me choking in the linguistic dust. I Googled.
I found a dozen ads for one-on-one instruction from all over China via online video calls, at costs so low I figured either the instructors were animated fakes like the Beijing Olympics fireworks, or they were sweatshops with hundreds of people chained to computers chanting Ni hao ma at one-eyed webcams.
Some ads were indistinguishable from Asian dating sites: rows of photos of pretty young female teachers, each with a description of how cute her voice was. Hm. One place touted "university-trained teachers from China" and a come-on for a free lesson. Nothing to lose, I thought. I typed in my Skype ID and hit Enter. Within seconds I received a call; I clicked "Answer."
My jaw dropped to my lap.
A dazzling beauty straight out of a fashion magazine, with long thick licorice-black hair and straight-cut bangs, gave me a smile that would melt a glacier. "Hi, are you Larry?" she said in perfect English. "Oh, you look so good!"
My brain sizzled like Pop Rocks. Maybe she thought all westerners looked alike. Maybe instead of a 50-year-old bald schlemiel who'd forgotten to shave that morning, to her I was the spitting image of Johnny Depp.
She introduced herself as my academic advisor, asked a few questions and set up an appointment for my free lesson.
That afternoon I received my introductory tutorial from another young woman. No fashion model, but charming enough through the slightly fuzzy webcam. Far from reciting a canned curriculum, she turned in a virtuoso performance, riffing off little remarks I’d made, improvising the vocabulary, always returning to the theme of subject-verb-object. Like a cross between jazz poetry and impeccably fine teaching.
Then it was back to my sultry academic advisor. I don't know whether it was the competent teaching that convinced me, or the way my advisor flicked her hair. I signed up. I almost asked her to marry my son.
The next day yet another young woman introduced herself as my assigned teacher. "You look so kind," she said in a soft Chinese accent. "Like you’re my nice grandfather."
Sigh. What happened to Johnny Depp? At least she blew away any lingering suspicion that I was dealing with a bride factory.
So now I'm learning Chinese in my own home from a hard-working, patient tutor thousands of miles away with (don't tell my wife) a gorgeous smile, for less than six bucks an hour, of which she may be getting what? No more than two and a half?
Is this the future of teaching? Will we all be studying alone, learning languages, history, business and math one-on-one from our personal tutors, while teachers' salaries worldwide adjust downward to match what I pay a young woman in Shaanxi Province?
I wonder what Chinese online law professors look like?

This article appeared in CULTURE Magazine, June 2010 | ©2010 Larry Feign