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No Free Lunch, But a Free Dinner: How a Chinese Introvert Stopped Being a Walking Stereotype

What’s the most persuasive story ever told? It’s the one you tell yourself about yourself. That story is often not entirely true. It takes persistence to reshape the plot, but isn’t it worth taking charge and, rather than following a predetermined path, sketch our own?

There was a clear moment when Shawn made a decision to take control of his story. He transformed from a reclusive introvert, into an adventure-seeking meetups coordinator at HelloTalk.

By Shawn Zhang

If you’d met me in high school, you wouldn’t have recognised me. I was a walking stereotype of a top student—one who didn’t talk to others and didn’t like sports. My aim was to maintain my stellar academic performance.

This study-focused introvert was also the only thing others saw. Our headteacher wanted to encourage me to practice communication skills by making me the class treasurer. I really didn’t want to have to chase after other students for money!

My parents always told me I would not be a good business person, precisely because of my lack of communication skills. I believed it, too. This is why I settled on food science and engineering as my university major. It seemed like a tactical choice, one that didn’t require much interaction with people, or persuasive skills.

In college, however, something shifted. I decided to run for the position of class monitor, and as a part of the campaign I had to give a speech. Despite preparing the text a week in advance, I was trembling when I went up on stage. This strong negative feeling made me realise my fear an impairment. I could not continue like this. I had to improve my communication skills.

I made a firm decision to switch my university major, and focus on developing the essential skills I was lacking. It felt refreshing to find a clear sense of direction. This was meant to be my new path, one that I had chosen myself.

If only it was so easy.

The Bitter Truth

Around the same time, another thing happened. In the beginning of my second year I failed one of my engineering courses. This meant that the university would not allow me to change my major to anything communication-related.

It was devastating. My confidence waned and I felt depressed, like I had nowhere to go.

I had to accept the bitter truth, and do my best considering the circumstances. After all, I could still adjust at least some of the subjects I was taking.

I picked as many communication classes as I could: business presentation, interpretation, I aimed to use all the free resources the university offered! This is when I started focusing on language learning, too. English, after all, is one of the main communication tools, especially in business. The classes I took were all in English.

This approach bore fruit. During internships and job interviews I had later, the interviewers were impressed with my spoken English skills. When I got a job in Inner Mongolia, one of the reasons I quit after a year was the lack of language exchange events around!

After university I still sought opportunities to actively practice my public speaking skills. When I returned to my home town Guangzhou from Mongolia two years ago, I volunteered four times to give lectures on cross-cultural communication.

Searching for even more ways to practice English, I also registered on HelloTalk. Little did I know how many changes this would bring to my life!

Take Initiative…And Get Free Dinner!

I took control over my self-development before, but HelloTalk opened my eyes to the magic of taking initiative in other circumstances. Because of that, I even got a free dinner once!

How did it happen?

A British guy, Liam, travelling through Guangzhou posted a Moment: he was looking for someone to join him for dinner. He was offering it as a treat, so many people liked and commented on his post. So did I—why not! But I did something extra too, I also sent him a voice message. Later Liam told me this was the reason why he picked me from among many “dinner applicants.”

Dinner with Liam!

And the Moment that lead to it.

The day after our evening of traditional Cantonese dim sum, we hung out on Beijing Road, a pedestrian shopping street, and went to a zoo. We still occasionally keep in touch, he is an English teacher in Beijing.

HelloTalk opened my eyes to the magic of taking initiative.

Another occasion where initiative led to a connection is when I helped Nico from New Zealand with his career research. A dentist in Auckland, he was planning to join his girlfriend and move to Shanghai. I connected him with my dentist friends in China to give him some career insight. After that we developed a deeper connection. Nico has offered me a couch if I ever make it to New Zealand! He is now also one of the main organisers of the Auckland HelloTalk meetup.

What I learned from these experiences is the power of reciprocity. After you take initiative to help others, the connections grow stronger and the other side may return the favour in unexpected ways!

Real Life and “Fake” Eyebrows

I haven’t been to New Zealand to meet with Nico yet, but wherever I travel, I meet up with HelloTalkers. My latest memorable trip was with Gabriel who I’d spoken with on the app for about three years!

Gabriel is from Melbourne and we started our connection from a regular English-Chinese language exchange. When he visited China for the third time, I joined him and his friends for a visit to Zhangjiajie.

Not only was it an impressive trip, but it was also great to finally meet Gabriel face to face. He was clearly “impressive” to the locals too! Local people in town and on trains kept asking him funny questions like, “Do you have a girlfriend?”, or “Are your eyebrows fake?”. His eyebrows are pretty expressive when he speaks, and people thought he’s had cosmetic surgery!

This trip was transformative for our friendship. Very often after meeting an online friend in real life the connection dies out. However, after this trip I can say Gabriel is one of my best friends—it’s not just a language exchange anymore. We talk about personal struggles and motivate each other to overcome whatever difficulties we face. I admire Gabriel for his patience and conflict resolution skills.

Picking Up the Travel Bug

Travelling with HelloTalk also showed me that the world, while vast, can also be pretty small. Once in a hostel I was chatting with a Belgian guy. It turned out he was using HelloTalk, and that his Chinese wife was learning Dutch from our HelloTalk celebrity grandpa, Julien!

If you want to connect with a stranger, why not start with “Have you heard of HelloTalk?” This could serve as a new go-to pick up line for language learners!

HelloTalk for me is a place to connect with people and with their stories.

What’s the ideal progression of an online friendship? When a simple online chat becomes a regular language exchange, then you meet up in real life, and then, ideally, the conversation continues and the relationship deepens.

Who would have thought that the trembling class monitor candidate would ever be reaching out to strangers in a foreign language on an online app asking to meet up!

Next time I travel, I want to meet my HelloTalk friends in Japan, Australia, or perhaps I’ll even take up Nico’s offer of a couch in New Zealand?  

Interviewed and written by Marta Krzeminska; Feature photo by from Pexels.

? Follow Shawn to see how he documents his friendships on HelloTalk.

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