I Have A Dream…
…and for once, I will actually be able to see it through. This is dedicated to Zhou Laoshi, the only teacher I have ever had the pleasure of being a student of that is worthy of mention.
I am a happa. For all you non-happas, that translates to half-asian, half-not. In my case, I’m half-Taiwanese, half-New York Jew. And proud of both, mind you. While I am not a religious person, in the eyes of the Jewish faith, I am a bar mitzvah’ed adult. I have a fantastic relationship with my paternal grandparents, and the only thing I would change about them is the distance they live away from me, because I never get to see them. On the other hand, I don’t know the first thing about my mother’s parents. Not for mom’s lack of trying (credit given where it is due). The only childhood memory I have of them is my mother’s father walking outside on to some balcony for a cigarette, and a birthday present of a bag of dried mushrooms for my eleventh birthday. That and the time that mom’s mom somehow managed to steal the spotlight on my mother’s Wedding Day by breaking her hip.
But I’ve already wasted more words on them in this post than I have ever actually exchanged with them in person. My point is, until I met Zhou Laoshi in the eighth grade, I knew absolutely nothing about my Chinese heritage. I had the pleasure of being chosen as her eighth grade student assistant, and between making some copies for her, I was able to learn some very basic Chinese. More importantly, however, she awakened in me a desire passion to learn about the other 50% of the blood running through me. Since then, Zhou Laoshi has had a special place in my heart–she helped me build the foundations of the dream that has, looking back now, so innately influenced my life and the choices I have made. I took Chinese every single year of high school, and paid attention ONLY in Chinese class in every single year of high school. Sorry I am not going to a better university mom and dad, but at least Irvine has the highest population of asian students, so my Chinese gets a lot of exercise over there.
Looking back at high school Chinese, I really think it was the most important four years of study that I had. Not because of the amount of new vocabulary we learned (I am pretty sure I doubled my vocabulary in the first quarter of college Chinese), but because Zhou Laoshi was able to help me unlearn all of the speaking habits that are so ingrained into the brain as an English speaker. It is a hard thing to describe, holding two languages as disparate as English and Chinese in your brain simultaneously, with some Spanish floating around between the cracks. Zhou Laoshi worked tirelessly for four years helping me to learn how to learn Chinese; a skill which I never even knew I had acquired until taking college-level Chinese, and especially coming to China.
As I have previously written, Chinese is a language that is intrinsically tied to Chinese culture, both in the heavy use of cultural and historical references in the language, and in the fact that most of the Chinese teachers you will encounter as a Western Chinese student are born-and-raised Chinese. This has more of an impact than you would at first expect. Chinese culture is different in every aspect I can think of from American culture. Do a google search on chinese vs american culture, you’ll see what I mean through the myriad results that come up. This culture difference is especially evident in the teaching methods, which will probably be the first experience of Chinese culture that the average American Chinese-language student will have. In American schools, it is perfectly okay to challenge the teacher if the student disagrees or feels like being difficult–that very concept of debate is the foundation on which Western education was built on. That is not how it works in China. The Chinese teachers I have had in China do not even have a concept of the students’ challenging of the teacher’s assignments or teaching methods. As a student, you are lucky if you get a teacher that understands your objection enough to get angry at you and feel disrespected–most of them simply do not understand what you are talking about when you tell them how unfair they are being or how they cannot possibly test you on words that they have not taught you yet.
This, I think, is the most important lesson that Zhou Laoshi taught me.
I will admit, there were several times throughout my four years of highschool study that I thought about quitting the language. It can be devestatingly frustrating, being a student in Viewpoint (used to getting everything my way) to, well, not have everything my way. I was introduced to the Chinese concept of ‘learning the words in the test question from the context of the other words which you are not actually being tested on’, something which any Chinese student reading this is grimly laughing in recognition about. There are countless other sources of frustration coming from the introductory study of Chinese, and I could write a book on every little aspect of every single one and how I dealt with it, but most of the fun of learning the language is figuring out how you yourself can re-gear your brain on a very rudimentary level adapt to learning Chinese.
Zhou Laoshi deserves more credit than I can possibly express for providing a fantastic compromise between being a Chinese Chinese teacher and an American Chinese teacher. Despite the cries, screams, moans, tantrums, and various other richkid bitching that I watched her put up with throughout the years (a small portion of it coming from me), this lady stayed true to her roots and true to her teaching philosophy, while still being pragmatic enough to meet the needs of her students. I have never in my life met a teacher who was more willing to stay late to help her students, no matter what the problem. I know I have gone to Zhou Laoshi for help in matter other than Chinese many times. I have never in my life met a teacher who is so wholeheartedly dedicated to her work. From the first year of the Viewpoint Chinese program, only offered in the high school level, with one class of what, 20ish students, to today, where the Chinese program is one of the biggest language programs in the school, with two (as far as I know, ZLS, correct me if I’m wrong) Chinese teachers, and classes beginning at the middle school level. And I will never forget the literally thousands of hours that Zhou Laoshi spent making Chinese powerpoint flashcards, complete with sound bytes of the pronounciation recorded by Zhou Laoshi herself, for her students to review with. It is a method which, to this day, I still use to review my Chinese. Honestly, this list is but a small fraction of the total effort that I have seen her dedicate to the Chinese program–I’ll never forget Chinese Club, or the bi-annual trips to China organized by Zhou Laoshi, or the trips to Chinatown, the cooking classes, Happa Club, the community service hours she fought to give me to help me meet my graduation requirement (fail on my part).
In case you haven’t caught on, I can sing praise all week for Zhou Laoshi. She was more family to me in eleventh grade than my own maternal grandparents ever will be. Suffice to say, while taking Chinese in high school might not have given me the vocabulary with which I can translate legal documents, Zhou Laoshi deftly helped me re-work the language heuristics in my brain so I can assimilate new words into my Chinese vocabulary much more fluidly than most of my classmates. Most importantly, I think, she helped me understand the psychology of the language, and of the teachers who teach it. Chinese is the hardest language to learn as a Westerner, not only because it is not phonetic, but because of all of the unforeseen cultural differences between student and teacher. I firmly believe Zhou Laoshi is the only teacher that I have found that can bridge that gap. Whether purposely or through sheer strength of character, she taught me in such a way that, despite all of the other phenomenal (or less than) teachers at Viewpoint, it was she who left the only lasting impression on me: my passion for learning Chinese.
Zhou Laoshi, I am forever indebted to you. You are the absolute best. Keep it up.