How to Make American Friends
As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I've made several trips to Japan in the past few years for vacations. In addition, my sister and her husband and two small kids （Adam & Nora） have made a six-week trip to Asia every year for the past three years —— to Taipei in 1997, to Singapore in 1998, and to Beijing in 1999. （They are able to do this because they work in junior high schools, and schoolteachers get 2-1/2-month summer vacations.）
As a result, I have some first-hand knowledge about the psychology of Americans who are visiting Asian countries. And this is what I have learned：
We would like to meet you！ If you try to use us for English conversation practice, we will feel nothing but gratitude！
The highlights of our vacations are not the museums we visit or the historical sights we see （although my sister says the Great Wall was excellent）, but rather the experiences we have when we meet new people.
In my case, when I'm in Tokyo, I like to spend two or three hours a day, three or four days a week, visiting one of the many Starbucks coffee shops there. I get a cup of latte and a pastry item, walk upstairs, get a small table, take out my English/Japanese phrasebook and my notebook and colored pens and start studying.
Even though I may occasionally look like I'm too busy to be bothered, the truth is that nothing would please me more than for someone at the next table to ask me where I'm from, or ask me to translate something for them, or simply say, "Hi —— how are you？"
Of course, sometimes I will take the initiative and ask someone sitting nearby for help translating a Japanese word, or for advice on where to go for lunch, or something. I'm somewhat shy, but I make a point to screw up the courage to ask someone a question at least every hour or so.
Since I know that Starbucks attracts customers who like some American things （i.e., American coffee shops）, there is a reasonable chance that a simple inquiry may lead to a long, pleasant conversation…… or possibly even more （e.g. lunch or dinner afterwards）。
Visiting BeBeyond and participating in the BeBeyond Forum is a great way to improve your English skills —— in written form.
But if you live in a city that occasionally gets visits from English-speaking tourists, here's an excellent way to improve your spoken English skills：
First, make an effort to occasionally hang out where tourists might hang out. For example, if you're going out for a beer, try going to a hotel bar. If you're in Beijing, bring some books with you and study while you drink a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Or simply keep your eyes open for tourists anywhere.
Second, make a firm commitment, right now, that you'll start a brief conversation with the next person you see who looks like they might speak English. （Even if it turns out that they're not from America, Canada, Australia, or Great Britain, I'll bet that virtually all Western tourists who visit China, no matter what their nationality, speak a little English —— enough to understand your initial question or comment.）
Third, unless you have the "gift of gab" （i.e., you're extremely personable and articulate）, plan now a couple of things you might say or ask. Possibilities include： "Hi —— are you American？" or "Hi —— are you a tourist here？" or "Excuse me —— is that a good guidebook？" This is easy. （There's a popular English expression： "This isn't brain surgery." It's true！） Even the classic "Excuse me —— do you have the time？" （while you point to your bare wrist） will work （as long as your watch isn't visible）。
Fourth, if you are successful in starting a conversation, take it as far as you can！ The obvious next steps are "Where are you from？" and "How long have you been here？" and "What have you done so far？" After that, a great way to continue the conversation by recommending places in your city that they should visit. （Toursits know about the big tourist attractions, but generally would love it if you could recommend some good local restaurants or bars or parks.） If you both seem to be enjoying the conversation, offer to join them for lunch （at most you might offer to pay for your share —— you absolutely would not be expected to treat） or to meet them again for coffee or some other activity later in the week.
（A good way to come up with additional conversation topics with your newly met friends, read articles under Keep Current or the ZS column.）
If you try to start a conversation as I've described above, the worst that could happen is that you might waste 30 seconds of your life.
But it is more likely that you might have a long conversation, you might help someone have a better vacation, or you might possibly even end up with new friends to visit when you someday visit their country.