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feihong

Experiences and ideas for running Chinese meetups overseas

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feihong

I thought it might be interesting to talk about my experiences running a Mandarin-language meetup in Chicago. I've put down my thoughts regarding a few topics I feel are important to running a successful meetup. Please chime in if you have any experiences or suggestions to share!
 
Choosing a meeting place
 
The default location is probably a restaurant in Chinatown. If your city doesn't have a Chinatown, just go with any Asian restaurant that is clean, has passable food, and is not too expensive. If your town happens to have a Korea Town or a Little Saigon, that would probably work as well. 
 
Honestly though, I don't like organizing restaurant-based meetings. You have to deal with reservations, collecting payments from everyone, figuring out how to accomodate everyone's dietary restrictions, and all this other stuff that I hate. It hasn't happened to me yet, but when a bunch of strangers show up, sometimes the final amount collected doesn't quite add up to the amount on the bill...
 
For the reasons listed above, I much prefer bars or cafes. Generally they have plenty of seating, and you can stay as long as you want. Plus people aren't eating the whole time, so they can spend more time talking. For bars, it is essential that you pick one that doesn't play music, or at least keeps the volume down. 
 
What if no one shows up?
 
This is always a legitimate question for niche meetups. First of all, you should never expect a ton of people to show up for something like this. Second, always make sure you have a reliable friend who will definitely show up. Some of my earliest conversation meetups were basically just my friend and I, and maybe another person that showed up half an hour after the starting time. As the meetup became more established, we started getting regulars. At this point I'm not too worried about no one showing up, but I always bring reading material because attendees are generally not very punctual.
 
Types of meetings
 
I usually just do conversation meetings, but sometimes I'll mix it up with these other types of meetings.
 
Dining
 
When making reservations, always keep in mind that half the people who RSVP probably won't show up. Also remember that Chinese restaurants in general don't honor reservations anyway, so stay away from busy periods.
 
Movies
 
Check your local arthouse theaters or film festivals. A lot of films are made in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, so there is likely something as long as you live in a decently-sized city. However, remember to check out reviews on movie.douban.com or a similar site. Otherwise you'll definitely end up watching some real stinkers.
 
Board games
 
I've tried this and had mixed success. We had a few 三国杀 meetings, but the high language requirements made it hard to find enough people to play. I found that there are actually quite a few card and board games that you can play in Chinese (even if the materials themselves are not printed in Chinese). But unless they're story-based games like "Who Would Win?" (which gets old quickly), they don't really have that much language value. Do this kind of meeting if you really like board games, but don't expect to get a lot of great language practice out of it.
 
Establish a "No English" rule
 
This is hugely important for conversation meetings. If this rule is not made explicitly clear, attendees will definitely speak English! Even native Chinese speakers will fall into the trap of speaking English for long stretches. It's only OK to relax this rule if your event's focus is not conversation, or if you're specifically catering to beginners. 
 
Sometimes it's a good idea to set a time limit on the "No English" rule. For example, when I first started holding conversation meetups, I would peter out after about 2 hours, whereupon I would start making random pronunciation and grammar mistakes. There is such a thing as foreign language endurance, and it's not reasonable to expect everyone to be at the same level.

Tangentially related, I always write my meeting titles and descriptions in Chinese, which usually scares off people who don't have basic conversational skills. I know that the other language meetups in the city do a similar thing.

 

What to do when people don't respect the "No English" rule
 
There are always going to be bozos who come and speak English, even if you tell them to their face that they shouldn't. If there's more than one of them, make them sit together so they can speak English to each other and leave the other attendees alone. If it's just the solitary English speaker, then, honestly, I'm not sure what to do. Probably the right thing to do is kick that person out, but I haven't had the heart to do that yet. One person told me I could use the yellow card/red card system they have in soccer, but I think I would only do that if it started becoming a big problem.
 
Marketing
 
I don't know anything about marketing a meetup since the one I organize for has been around for several years. But opening an account on Meetup.com and posting events seems to work, more or less. People seem to find the meetup via internet search or word of mouth.
 
Native speakers
 
I think it's great when native speakers show up to my conversation meetups, but I don't count on it. I also don't try very hard to attract native speakers, even if I maybe should. I realize that, other than friendly conversation, my meetup doesn't have that much to offer them. I find that the conversation flows well enough if you have at least one advanced non-native attendee who can correct pronunciation mistakes and act as a "human dictionary". If you are actively trying to recruit native speakers to attend, tell them that they can use the meetup to find decent language exchange partners.

 

Book club

 

Yes, I've actually tried to do this. No, there weren't too many takers. Oh well.

Final thoughts

 

It's not really that hard to start a Chinese language meetup. The hard part is having regular meetings and keeping it up even when life gets busy. But having regular meetings is important — it's the only way to establish something that resembles a community, as opposed to just a group of strangers who share a common interest.

 

I don't expect too many replies to this topic, but I hope that someone out there finds it useful!

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sparrow

When I was living in Manhattan, there was a meetup group called Mandarin Mondays that was very successful and also had a decent number of native speakers show up somehow. I don't know how they did it. You could look them up and ask them some details about it.

 

One idea would be to get everyone to chip in for a free drink or $5 off the meal for the first two native speakers who show up if you have enough people in regular attendance.

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Meng Lelan

Maybe tell the Chinese programs in the public schools about the Meetups, as I know of high school foreign language teachers actually give extra credit (or even require) their high school students to attend a session or two of a conversation group like that. I remember when I was in high school myself, our French teacher required all of us to go singly or in pairs (to prevent mass overwhelming of the event) to the French House Friday Coffee Hour once a semester. That was really fun to do something like that outside of the school classroom. 

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feihong

@sparrow

 

I doubt there was any special trick they employed. It's that New York has even greater density than Chicago. Their meetup was founded later than ours, but they've already accumulated quite a few more members. Their events also seem to be more inclusive ("all ages and levels of proficiency welcome"). I only have the patience to cater my events to advanced speakers (and, to a lesser extent, intermediate speakers).

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Shelley

In our Chinese classes we had a simple way of dealing with persistent English speakers - we ignored them, then as soon they spoke Chinese they were responded to and they soon got the message.

 

I had 2 hour classes, first hour was for new stuff and questions were allowed in English but the second hour was Chinese only, which is when we employed this method.

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roddy

What an interesting idea for a topic, well done Feihong. And good to see you back on the site as well....

 

I'm with you on location - maybe a less regular restaurant meeting, but generally you want to be somewhere with more flexible seating so people can move around, and the hassle of ordering / paying / etc. If I was going to do a restaurant meal I'd be tempted to make it a set menu, set price, pay in advance deal. At least Chinese dining works reasonably well for that.

 

I'd be happy with charging a small fee to cover meet up costs, and maybe to cover your time / effort. The advantage of this is that a) people are a lot more realistic about signing up for something they have to pay for, and b) you get money. It may also be possible to add a small supplement and cover the cost of a paid Chinese tutor coming along to circulate. 

 

I can imagine a meetup aiming at higher level learners is always going to be a lot less active - that's just the way Chinese learning works. 

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feihong

@Shelley

That is a good suggestion, although people are much less disciplined in a bar than when they are in a classroom.

In such a casual setting, the English-forbidden period must come before the English-allowed period. I've seen meetings where, once a certain number of people start speaking English, the group as a whole loses its discipline. When the situation has devolved to the point where most everyone is speaking English, it's not really possible to get people back on track. 

 

It's possible that you might not have these problems in venues that don't serve alcohol. Non-alcoholic meetings also tend to get fewer attendees, so rules are easier to police.

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sparrow

Another way to handle the situation allow the meetup to be open to all Mandarin levels. I seek out the people who are willing and able to operate in mostly Mandarin, spend my time with them, get their contact info, then plan adventures in the city with them—cool food spots, events, and so on.

 

A group of three or four people who speak Chinese together and hang out frequently is a massive boon to your rate of improvement—even if their Chinese is below your level. You can attend the meetups once in awhile to add people to the group.

 

 

But if you can get a group together that can hang out and use mostly or purely Mandarin as Feihong suggests, then by all means—that's really precious in my eyes.

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Dawei3

I just saw this in Feihong's note regarding what they posted over the last 10 years.  

 

I'll add:  A Chinese/English language group meetup I attend went online last year.  One contrast with the above is that we have both English & Chinese discussions in our meetups.  We originally focused on just practicing Chinese, but we had trouble retaining native Chinese speakers.  Then we switched to have part of the meeting focused on English and part on Mandarin. This changed the dynamics significantly;  now we have much more participation from both native English & Chinese speakers.  We help the native Chinese with English and they help us with Mandarin.  Also, because our meetings are online, we have people from many places.  

 

 

 

 

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