In China, L.A.’s Mayor Villaraigosa promotes language program


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REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- Take a kid from Los Angeles who may never have left the United States and may never have flown on an airplane and send him to Beijing to become proficient in Chinese.

Impossible? No, insists Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was in Beijing on Monday to promote his city as a location for Chinese businesses.


After showing a Chinese-language video touting Los Angeles, with long tracking shots of the beach at sunset and closeups of Rodeo Drive (the Chinese have become leading consumers of luxury goods), the mayor boasted of his plans to send inner-city youth to study in China.

‘Today’s Chinese students are 600 times more likely to study English than Americans to study Mandarin,’ said Villaraigosa, speaking to mostly Chinese reporters at a Beijing public-relations firm. ‘We hope to dramatically increase the number of American students studying in China the next four years.’

Last month, the mayor had announced that Los Angeles is grooming and recruiting students for a new program launched by President Obama called the 100,000 Strong Initiative. In Los Angeles, 10 to 15 of the 260 students now studying Chinese at the Mendez Learning Center, a public high school in Boyle Heights, will be selected beginning next summer.

‘These kids all speak English, about 95% of them speak Spanish, and they are all learning Mandarin as we speak,’ Villaraigosa said. ‘Virtually every one of them has never been out of the country. Many of them have never been on an airplane.’ Michael Dardzinski, one of the organizers, elaborated: ‘We have a problem. Americans don’t know about what is happening outside America. We need the next generation to be capable of working overseas. ... The idea that we are the only ones who innovate is a false idea.’

To promote the program, rapper of the Black Eyed Peas has signed on to do a concert with Chinese musicians in Beijing on Dec. 17. A reciprocal event in Los Angeles is in the planning stages for June, Dardzinski said.

The concert series is being called Booey Lehoo, a play on the Chinese expression bu yi le hu, meaning ‘Isn’t it joyful?’ It comes from a quote by Confucius.

Villaraigosa stumbled over the phrase at the news conference, before Chinese American actor Allan Wu, one of the promoters, took the microphone and with faint condescension signed him off: ‘Muchas gracias, mayor.’



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-- Barbara Demick