We knew coming to China that they speak Chinese here; we aren't those stereotypical English speakers who go around the globe aghast at the temerity of the dozens of non-English speakers in the world. But we can't help being dismayed by the complete lack of English ability displayed by citizens who received 13 years of mandatory English language instruction.
I teach in the international department of a much larger school. When there's a teenager around, chances are he or she is from the national program. When you need their help, about 90% of them refuse to make any attempt in English at all. Last week I had to talk to the guards at our gate about something. Lower-status jobs tend to be filled with people who had fewer educational opportunities, which would mean they are much less likely to have had English instruction. Since the guard and I couldn't understand each other, the guard stopped a teenage girl walking past. I said, "Ni hui shuo yingyu ma?" She looked very nervous and said, "A little." I explained to her what I needed. She looked at the guard, made a nervous noise, and then ran away. This girl has had at least 10 years of English classes.
We had been here four months, and had become accustomed to everyone acting like they knew absolutely no English at all, when we went to Thailand last December. In Thailand everyone we encountered, except for two people, spoke fantastic English. (The two people were a man selling handmade items from a blanket in a train station, and a woman sweeping a bus stop.) And we were not in the "tourist" part of town most of the time. (How "not in the 'tourist' part of town" were we? On one street everyone who passed us stopped to ask if we were lost. And they all asked in English.)
It wouldn't be as big of a deal if the people we encountered could think outside the accent box, but many people don't understand any of our Chinese. A few months ago a guy from church dropped me off near a subway stop that turned out to not be there. I knew I was in the right neighborhood, but I needed some directions. I asked three different people, "Yonghegong zhan zai nar?" They all just laughed and walked away. The first two were old ladies, but one was a guy in his 30s. If he didn't understand my Chinese, he should have said, "I'm sorry, what do you need?" Because he had 13 years of English instruction! I only had five years of German instruction and I can understand someone asking me, "Wo ist der Bahnhof?"
I told this story to my students the next day and they said, "Um, you were looking for something?" A Korean student said, "A train station, right?" All the Chinese students said he was wrong. He wasn't.