Building cultural bridges teaching Chinese

Written by Randy Robbins, Pilot staff writer April 09, 2013 10:07 pm

Photo by Randy Robbins Chinese teacher Ya’n Huang explains the meaning of Chinese language to students, most of them older than 50 and many who have visited China several times.
Photo by Randy Robbins Chinese teacher Ya’n Huang explains the meaning of Chinese language to students, most of them older than 50 and many who have visited China several times.
GOLD BEACH —Eleven time zones and 5,360 miles. 

Teacher Ya’n Huang came a long way from her home in Xi’an — an industrial complex city of 10 million people in the heart of China — to Gold Beach. 

Her arms crossed against her slight frame, the 44-year-old teacher searched the faces of her students at the Southwestern Community College (SWOCC) Gold Beach annex. The students, all adults, most over the age of 50, were there to learn Mandarin Chinese — the most common “of the more than 200 living languages” in that country, Huang said.

Ya’n, whose name means “beautiful water,” explained to students, the ancient Chinese time-honored tradition of being a “teacher.”

“The bond between teachers and students in my country is sacred,” said a smiling Ya’n (pronounced Yen).

“As your teacher I have a strong responsibility to you ... to you ... kids!” she said.

The group laughed at the idea that, at their age, they are thought of as Huang’s “kids.”

Coming to America

Huang, the middle daughter of three children, knows a thing or two about teaching — her father was a professor of philosophy before he passed away; her mother was a physics professor.

Huang came to the Pacific Northwest quite by accident. 

“Humboldt State University (HSU) was looking for an instructor to teach Chinese and somehow my name was forwarded to them,” she said. 

She still doesn’t know how, she said.

With twin degrees in English and economics, Huang came to the U.S. and taught Chinese at HSU in 2007 and 2008. She “liked American life so much” that she returned to HSU from 2009 to 2011 and earned a third degree, a Master of Business Administration from 2009 to 2011. 

She has since relocated to Curry County, offering her language teaching services to SWOCC. They took her up on her offer and a Mandarin Chinese course was born.

Huang admits that before she arrived in America she had “a really skewed idea” of American culture. Her only point of reference, she laughs, was “Hollywood movies!” 

In her country, television wasn’t available to the masses until the early 1980s and even then it was limited in scope. 

“We didn’t have (television) growing up, so as children we Chinese had to entertain ourselves; come up with games,” she said.

When she’s not teaching, Huang, who participated in track and field as a child, still enjoys physical exercise, including golf.

“I enjoy the marvelous freedom and wide-open green spaces of Curry County. It’s not crowded like my home in Xi’an,” she said.

Recently married to Curry County resident Tad Vanderlip, Huang also enjoys gardening and works part time as a financial assistant at Freeman Marine.

“They (Freeman Marine) really have been flexible with my schedule so that I can teach. I really appreciate them,” she said.

In the classroom

“The Chinese language has more than 50,000 characters,” she tells her students.

The bold proclamation sends a ripple of apprehension among the students facing the enormity of learning a new language.

“That is not my task or my goal — to teach you that many characters in this class,” Huang said, and visible relief washes over the pupils’ faces. 

The energetic, diminutive instructor continues her prologue, sawing one hand up and down in the air for added emphasis as she maps out her lesson strategy.

Most of the students hail from Brookings, and some have traveled to China several times for business or pleasure. Student Pat Piper is already planning her sixth trip.

“China is probably the most beautifully diverse country I’ve ever been to,” Piper said, adding, “I prefer the southern part of the country near Shanghai.”    

Huang goes over linguistic facts for the students.

“You will need 15,000 characters to be fluent; 5,000 might make you ‘an expert’; 2,000 for you to understand a newspaper. 1,000? It can help you to become somewhat aware of what is going on around you.”

She paused, then added, “I will be attempting to help you master only 300 characters in this class.” 

It’s the best she can hope for within the framework of the course, she said.

“Chinese is not easy to learn. It is even harder to teach,” she said.

Complicating matters, there are also tonal nuances that are “sung” by the Chinese speaker to impart the correct word selection upon the listener. That’s because a word, for example, “Shi,” is the same word for five different things: the number ‘10’, real (or authentic), rock or stone, recognition (to know), and “food.”

“I need to learn that one. I love Chinese food!” said student Lee Smith, 73.

Why is she so passionate about teaching Mandarin Chinese?

“I think it is so very important to know people,” she said. “Language is a vehicle or a bridge. I said to myself, ‘This is something that I can do.’ If I can get people talking to each other, then misunderstanding and miscommunication between cultures will be lessened.”

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The 11-week class started January 8 and is held from 1 to 3 p.m. every Tuesday. The cost is $44, plus the cost of a textbook. For more information or to register for this or future classes call the Gold Beach SWOCC center at 541-247-2741.