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Passing the Torch



Earlier this year, I decided to step down as organizer of the Chicago Mandarin Conversation meetup. As for why, I've been hosting Mandarin conversation meetups in some form or another since fall 2013, and I've simply lost interest (but I will continue to host the Chinese study group for a while). Fortunately, Kenneth has decided to take my place, starting in January of next year. We had a nice WeChat call just now about how to run the meetup, and these are my notes from that meeting.


Should we merge the two groups? (Chicago Mandarin Conversation and Chicago Chinese Study)

I'm slightly against this idea. One is for all levels and the other is for advanced speakers. It does make some things easier, but the problem is that with a mixed membership the advanced group will almost certainly get more beginners showing up. Remember that people don't read event descriptions!



I fairly strict about membership requests, requiring applicants to write a coherent introduction in Chinese. You can decide to be more lax on this front, and just accept any applicant that completes the profile (which is what I used to do). You have to accept that some beginners might slip through, and when they show up, you can refer them to the all-levels group if it's clear they don't belong in the advanced group.


Try to keep a good record of no-shows. If someone with a history of no-shows signs up, you'll know that they likely won't attend, and they can be automatically kicked off a waiting list if there is one.


There have been rare occasions when a member brings their child to a conversation event. I think this is OK if the parent is taking part in the conversation themselves, and the child is just hanging out. But if the parent tries to leave their child there, kick them both out! Meetup is not free babysitting.



When I started out, it was just me and my friend Aaron, and it was weeks before we got a third attendee. Even though it was a very small gathering, it was easy to host because I had a co-host and friend who I could count on to be there more-or-less on time every week. Definitely try to recruit your friends and coworkers to come, and keep a mental list of people who can step in for you when you're absent or running late.


There are a lot of people who claim that they would like to host a event. Do not believe them! If they actually name a place and time and show up at that place and time, that's when you can believe them.



Big announcements should be published on these platforms (in order of priority):

  • Meetup mailing list
  • WeChat group
  • Blog
  • FB page
  • Twitter

Normal announcements should just go on the mailing list.


Posting pictures to meetup.com helps a lot with promotion. It's better to have the picture taken on your own phone so you can just upload it yourself.


Another good way of promoting the meetup is to encourage people to write positive reviews.


You should send out a message to the mailing list introducing yourself and explaining that you will be organizing the group from now on. There are probably some members who still believe that this meetup group is dead. Remember to change your profile to indicate that you're now an organizer!



Having a recurring event helps convince people that this is a stable, active meetup. I recommend having at least one event that always occurs on the same relative day of the month at the same location and same time. You can schedule additional events at different places and times to spice things up.


Expect that about 50% of the RSVPs will actually show up.


If the event is at a restaurant, make sure to schedule the meetup 30 minutes in advance of when you want to take a seat. This avoids a lot of problems, like having to be reseated because the expected number of people didn't show up. If at all possible try to schedule at the edge of busy periods. For example, instead of scheduling for noon, choose 11:00 am or 1:00 pm. If you can avoid it, don't make reservations ahead of time since it's hard to estimate the number of attendees.


You don't need to announce it, but you should always have a backup plan. For restaurant events, you might show up to find that the restaurant is full or it's suddenly closed down for renovation or failed health inspection. Backup restaurant should be one that you're familiar with and which is generally not busy. For Chinatown, I think the underground cafeteria is a decent backup venue.


Try to avoid cancelling events if at all possible, even if the number of RSVPs is really low. Sometimes people will show up even if they didn't RSVP. If you do need to cancel an event, announce it the day before, especially if there are guests who would be coming from out of town to attend. The best backup plans account for the event where no one shows up (hopefully that never happens to you).



Since the average level of attendees is likely to be lower from now on, you should consider announcing discussion topics ahead of the event. Intermediate speakers tend to be more passive conversationalists and need more prodding. When you encounter an awkward silence, that's your cue to introduce a topic.



Prefer venues that are quieter, less crowded, and have lazy susans on their tables.


When ordering at a restaurant, the host(s) should always order for the group. Always remember to ask about dietary restrictions. Do not allow more than 20% of the dishes to be "adventurous" (e.g. chicken feet, jellyfish, duck's blood, etc). Do not let every attendee order one dish. Instead, ask every attendee what kind of food they're most looking forward to eating, and take everyone's wishes into consideration. If an attendee has special knowledge of a restaurant's cuisine, let them order.


When dishes are brought to the table, ask the server which dish it is and what ingredients are in it. This is useful for people who aren't very familiar with the cuisine.


Make sure to take a picture of the receipt so that people know what you ordered. Better yet, take pictures of the dishes and post them to meetup.com.


If I'm the host, I prefer to pay the whole bill and ask everyone to pay me via Venmo or cash.


Sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior

If a member reports another meetup.com user (not necessarily a member) for abusive messages, report them to meetup.com. The admins can see the messages on their side and hopefully they'll take the appropriate action. Keep in mind that for every abusive message you hear about, there are many more that aren't reported. Women receive a crazy amount of creepy messages online.


Kick spammers out and block them from rejoining.


IRL abusive behavior should be shut down immediately. Kick the offender out of the meetup group right away. If they want to rejoin the group, they'll have to talk to you before their membership request can be approved.


Things I have kicked people out for: homophobia, trying to use the group to sell pot, and trying to recruit members into one of those Chinese pyramid schemes.


You cannot kick someone out for looking like a creep. You can, however, pull female members aside and advise them not to accept free car rides from creepy-looking men.


We used to have a code of conduct. We should bring it back as a blog post and put a link to it on the meetup.com description page.



It's good to maintain a WeChat group so that it's easier for attendees to add each other. Just scan the group instead of scanning each other. The group is also useful for announcing events to existing members.


Any person who is spamming the group should be kicked out immediately. They can rejoin if they agree to stop spamming.


Currently, the requirement on the WeChat group is that no English is allowed. In practice, the group is really low traffic so I don't think that this is a necessary rule. I will transfer ownership of the existing group to you.


You should periodically clean out the WeChat group of members who haven't shown up in a long time. It's harder to find the people you want to add if the group has a lot of members.


We used to have a Facebook Group, but I don't think it's a viable option anymore now that the FB Groups app has been pulled. Using FB Groups from the main Facebook app is a way worse experience than just using WeChat. Also, I don't think FB Groups has the translate feature.


You will eventually be contacted by a recruiter who wants to post job ads to the group. It's your call whether to allow it, but I sent out a survey to ask the members if they want to see job ads through the meetup, and the response was mostly negative. In truth, only a few members have the language skills that qualify for the jobs I've seen. I think the best way to handle this is to ask the recruiter for the Chinese version of the job ad and post it in the WeChat group. Or just ignore recruiters entirely.


Events at your home

On occasion, you might want to host an event at your own home, like a potluck, game night, or movie-watching party. This is a great idea, and a wonderful opportunity to torment your friends with your indie music collection (ahem). Do not post the event with your exact address, the street corner or closest El station is good enough. You can message your phone number and address to confirmed attendees the day before the event. You may want to enable a waiting list whose size corresponds to the size of your apartment. Exclude inveterate no-showers from RSVP'ing. You may also want to limit the number of guests that you haven't personally met before.


It is not a big deal if your place doesn't have enough chairs for everyone. In practice, people are happy to stand for 2 hours if they're having a good time. If it really bothers you, then clean your floor and people can sit on that.


If you invite a total stranger to your home, you don't have to give your phone number and address to them right away. Remember that this person might not even show up! You can add them on WeChat/Facebook, and tell them to send their location to you when they get within a mile of your location. Once you've confirmed that they're actually coming, you can send them the relevant information.


Other types of events

Here are some events I've hosted or attended, and what I think of them.


Exhibition of Ai Weiwei's photos: It was really nice to chat while browsing the exhibition. I don't think this type of event needs to be limited to exhibitions of Chinese artists.


Mandarin Mingle in SF: This was held inside a hotel bar and everyone stood the whole time because there was no seating in that area. An absurd number of attendees, RSVPs were capped at 70 and maybe half showed up. I enjoyed it, but I wonder how long it would take to set up in Chicago.


Chinese chess and conversation in Montreal: People really seemed to like the vibe of chatting while playing a board game. After the meetup proper they went to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Experience was marred by the organizer being a really creepy guy who didn't speak a lick of Chinese and who threatened to expel a female member who wouldn't give him her number (he was only there briefly since he had nothing to contribute beyond being creepy).


Mahjong and hotpot: I thought this was an interesting combination. Worth the effort if you have the equipment and some people willing to help you out with chopping and cleanup.


Watch a Chinese movie at a film festival: I don't really recommend this as a meetup event. It's fine to watch a movie with friends, but watching a movie with other meetup members is pretty much the same as watching it with random strangers. In practice, no one stays around after the movie to discuss it.


Language exchange: Maybe I'm bad at managing this type of event but I've never seen it go well. After the switchover from Chinese to English, the conversation tends to just stay in English.


Picnic in a park: This was fun, and we got some exercise to boot. We chatted while eating unhealthy snacks. We spent most of the time playing that game where you draw a card and put it on your forehead, and you lose if you say the number on your head. Loser has to do a challenge (usually something physical, like running to the library and back or getting a photo taken with a passing dog).


Friendsgiving at Sun Wah BBQ: Kind of an annual tradition that we skipped this year. I don't usually like hosting events at restaurants but this is somewhat of an exception. It's interesting how this event tends to attract people who show up just for this and never come back.


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