My two expat colleagues and I sat in the nosebleed section of the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest last night watching the athletics events for the Paralympics.
We were really impressed by the athletes with disabilities, overcoming many physical obstacles to compete against the best in the world.
As we watched, a group of young Chinese men sat in front of us and soon after one turned around and started chatting up one of my coworkers.
Wearing an army green shirt and silver matte glasses, this guy surnamed Chen was eager to practice his English.
My colleague, just a bit older than this university student, chatted with him for a while, but then really wanted to watch what was going on in the stadium so I was left to carry on the conversation, in a mix of Chinese and English.
Chen asked me as a native English speaker if I could tell the difference between British and American English, in terms of their accents. I said yes, but tried to encourage him, saying he could too if he listened to a lot of oral English.
He shrugged and said they all basically sounded the same to him.
I praised him for his pretty good English, and willingness to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but he said, "That's only for about an hour's practice. It's not enough."
Then what about watching movies, I suggested. Again he explained the dialogue sometimes went so fast he could barely catch what was going on. "You know the movie, The Matrix? All I could hear was, blah blah blah OK... OK was the only thing I could understand."
Soon after our exchange, my two colleagues wanted to leave, worried about a stampede of people leaving the Bird's Nest en masse.
Chen was sad to see us leave, and hoped we'd bump into him again. "I hope you can recognize me!" he exclaimed as we walked down the stairs.
Now that I think about it, his English level is about the same or a bit better than my Chinese.
But he was the one who had guts to start a conversation.
As a friend of mine has told me many times before, "The ones who aren't afraid to ask are the ones who get ahead."
Although Chen feels he's behind compared to some of his peers who managed to go to the University of Toronto to study, he's miles ahead of his friends sitting with him, who were too shy to say anything to us in English.