Exchange Teacher : Jin-ping Yang Opens a Window on China in Irvine

Times Staff Writer

Kneeling beside Helena Roberts as she practiced writing some of the 40,000 characters of the Chinese language, teacher Jin-ping Yang patiently explained to the University High School senior that she needed to hold her calligraphy brush upright to create the correct brush strokes.

"I was kind of worried when I signed up for this class because everybody said Chinese was a hard language to learn," Helena said during an interview later at the Irvine high school. "Sure, I've got to pay a lot more attention to it than my other courses, but I really like Chinese. And it's nice having someone in the class who's really from China, like Mr. Yang."

Yang is one of 28 teachers from the People's Republic of China who are teaching this semester at U.S. high schools under a unique exchange program sponsored by International/Intercultural Programs, formerly known as the American Field Service.)

"There are now 10,000 people from the People's Republic (of China) studying at U.S. universities, and this is the only program where Chinese citizens are actually living with host American families," said Lynn Sanborne, public-information director for the sponsoring organization, in a telephone interview from its New York City headquarters.

The Visiting Teachers Program enables teachers from foreign countries to enrich their skills by observing American methods of teaching, according to local AFS representative Cindi Fischer, of Irvine. She said University High is the only high school in Orange County where Chinese is taught, and the only one with a teacher from mainland China on its staff.

Lives With Family

Yang, who is 22, is living in Irvine with Michael and Connie Cassady. His American host is owner of a neuropsychology and neurobiology consulting firm, and Connie Cassady teaches art at Costa Mesa's Estancia High School. Their daughter, Michaelann, is a senior at University High and their son, Christopher, is a senior at Stanford University.

"Jin-ping has been wonderful," Connie Cassady said during a recent interview in her Irvine home. "He's like a member of the family. He calls me Mom, and I think of him as my son. It'll be very hard to see him go."

To give Yang a sampling of American life, the Cassadys and their friends have taken him to an Indian reservation and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, to Lake Arrowhead, Disneyland and various sporting events at UCLA and UC Irvine.

"We stay away from politics and economics because none of us are very interested in them," said Cassady. She added that the closest they have come to such topics is in talking about how the two life styles are different because of the higher standard of living in the United States. "We're much more interested in individuals--in finding out how the American and Chinese people are different--or alike."

The Cassadys have made it clear to Yang that most Americans are not as affluent as Irvine residents. While driving through Corona one day, the Cassadys told Yang that many of that city's residents work in Orange County but live in Corona, in Riverside County, because they can't afford Orange County's high-priced housing. A Cassady family friend once took Yang on a tour of some of the poorer sections of Los Angeles.

"We try to tell Jin-ping that we are not the average American family," Cassady said.

Interjected Yang, "I've been looking for the average American family, but they all seem different."

A native of Shenxi province in central China, Yang is a 1983 graduate of the Xian Foreign Languages Institute, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English.

Yang was recommended for the exchange program by the principal of the Peking high school where he teaches English. His was one of an avalanche of applications reviewed by the Chinese Ministry of Education, and he was chosen after he scored well on English tests and passed health exams.

Seen as Lucky Break

"I was very excited when I was chosen," Yang said. "I felt I was very fortunate to be allowed to go abroad because it's not easy for a high school teacher to travel outside of China. Most instructors who're allowed to travel abroad teach at the university level."

Yang was assigned to University High because it is one of the few high schools in the country that teaches Chinese. The course was first offered on an experimental basis in the summer of 1983, according to Jennie Hu, the school's Chinese-language instructor and Yang's so-called "master teacher," who is shepherding him through the intricacies of American high school life.

University High now offers three years of Chinese, supported by a $40,000, four-year grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation of Morristown, N.J. University High students do unusually well on standardized tests, and 95% of them go on to college. It is the only school in California in the program, which involves 30 high schools throughout the nation, according to the Dodge Foundation.

Yang's presence on campus this semester reflects continuing expansion of the school's Chinese program, which in two years has seen enrollment grow from six to 22 students.

Eight Teaching Levels

"Our students range from beginners, with no background in Chinese, to those who are very advanced, such as new immigrants from Taiwan who have studied Chinese all their lives," explained the 40-year-old Hu, a graduate of Taiwan Normal University, Taipei, who formerly taught Chinese to foreign college students and diplomats in Taiwan.

Since her students' backgrounds in Chinese are so varied, Hu has tailored her teaching to eight different levels, from "1A" to "4B." Since Chinese is offered only in three class periods daily, however, students working at all eight levels often are taught at the same time--a modern version of the one-room schoolhouse.

"For students with such a variety of abilities, it's hard to give them individual attention," said Hu, who came to America in 1973 and is still excited about her visit two months ago to mainland China, where she was born. (She had been unable to visit there since the 1949 Communist revolution established the People's Republic.)

"Jin-ping is playing an important role because he's helping me with these different ability groups that are in one classroom at the same time," Hu explained.

Calligraphy Skills Taught

During a recent class, nine students in the school library were receiving weekly instruction from Hu and Yang in Chinese calligraphy, which is considered both a medium of communication and an art form. Groups of three students sat at three large, oval tables covered with newspapers to protect against the heavy, black ink used on the calligraphy brushes.

Yang stood beside one boy and cautioned, "You've got to sit up straight. You can bend your head a little bit--but not your chest. And remember, always, to move the brush from top to bottom, left to right. Close the mouth (of the character) last."

Stephanie Maderia, 14, a freshman taking first-year Chinese, acknowledged, "It's kind of tough, but it's a lot of fun. I'm particularly interested in Chinese because it doesn't sound like my own language."

Indeed, Stephanie said she chose Chinese because it seemed more exotic than other foreign languages. "I wanted to do something different--more original than taking Spanish or French," she said. "I want to go into (the diplomatic corps), and since China is going to play a larger role in world politics, I want to learn as much about China as I can."

Learning About Tones

Praising Yang's contribution to the class, Stephanie added, "He's been a real big help. Before he came I didn't worry about 'tone marks' on words (which can change meaning). But Mr. Yang emphasizes tone marks, and he helps me see a lot of mistakes I've been making."

Tanya Dinh, 15, a sophomore, added, "Mr. Yang is originally from China, and I'm learning a lot of information from him about what the country is like."

Tanya said she decided to take Chinese this year because she believes knowledge of foreign languages improves international understanding. "You can socialize more with people from other places and learn a lot more when you visit other countries if you know foreign languages," explained Tanya, who, in addition to English, speaks Vietnamese and French and is taking second-year Spanish.

Yang is not only contributing to University's academic program, he is also helping with athletics, by serving as an assistant to the track and field coaches. Yang was a championship pole vaulter in college and now is helping to coach the sport at University.

As he watched Yang offer pointers to pole vaulters during afternoon practice, head track coach Chris Conlin said he appreciated Yang's help, since he has only three full-time assistants and an equal number of part-time assistants to coach the 138 members of University's track and field team.

Participating fully in the academic and athletic life of the 1,860 students at University High while living in Irvine represents a sharp contrast to the life Yang led in China. And it has corrected some misconceptions he had held about American life, he said.

Although Yang's 70-year-old father is a high school English teacher, Yang said, his father never spoke English at home while Yang was growing up. Yang never developed an interest in English until he reached high school.

(Yang's mother is 57, an elementary school teacher. His 26-year-old brother works in a machine shop.)

"I wasn't good at math, physics or things like that," Yang said of his high school years. "But I liked Chinese and English a lot. Fortunately, I passed the exam to be admitted to the (Xian) Foreign Language Institute."

Smaller Class Groups

Although the prospect of speaking English to American students "scared" him before he arrived in January, Yang says, this fear was eased once he began to teach because class sizes at University--eight to 10 students each--are so much smaller than the groups of 50 he was accustomed to in Peking.

Yang said his insecurity about teaching Americans has disappeared because of the support he has received from his master teacher Hu, whom he called a "wonderful person."

And he had high praise for his students: "None of them have given me any trouble. They've cooperated very well, and they are very interested in learning Chinese."

Teaching here has also been a learning process for Yang, who noted, "Teaching methods here are different than they are in China. In China the teacher lectures and the students sit, listening quietly. The students feel too shy to ask questions. But American students are not shy.

"American students don't hesitate to speak out on what they're thinking about. And American teachers encourage students to speak in class, and to give their own opinions. I think that's good because it helps the students to develop their own personalities and own way of thinking; they're not pressured into thinking one way. I think students learn a lot more."

Will Take Home Techniques

Yang said the principal of his high school in Peking is excited about the teaching techniques he is learning in the United States. In addition to applying them in his own classes, Yang plans to show them to other high school teachers in workshops following his return to China this summer.

"Most visiting scholars who have been to the States have studied at universities, and they know little about high schools," Yang said, explaining why the Chinese government views the teacher-exchange program as very important to the reforms planned for Chinese high schools. And one of the planned changes is to encourage students to participate in classroom discussions.

Of the caliber of scholarship at American high schools, compared with their Chinese counterparts, Yang said such an evaluation would be impossible because the educational systems of the two countries are so different.

Unlike the United States, where anyone can go to secondary school, China (like most other countries) allows only its best and brightest students--as determined by competitive exams--to attend academic high schools. The rest of the teen-age population receives vocational training.

Yang said the Chinese system of competing for admission to academic high school--the door to a college education and career opportunities--"encourages students to work hard."

An unfortunate effect of this system, however, is that "because doing well on these exams is so important in determining what careers students may pursue, some students study to the exclusion of other activities," he added.

'Minds Become Stiff'

"Their minds become stiff; all they do is read , read . Students don't get a chance to develop their own personalities, or to improve their own individual talents."

Indeed, China's inflexible educational system has meant that "while Chinese students do well in passing their exams, they are not very good at doing experimental things," Yang maintained. "Chinese students can probably do better on exams than American students, but when it comes to doing things like (scientific) laboratory work that requires original thought, I don't think the Chinese students can do better than American students--and maybe much worse."

While Yang has been learning much from his University High experience, the high school has been learning much from him, according to Principal Robert Bruce.

"Jin-ping brings a different and fresh perspective to the school," Bruce said. "He's from a culture where things are done differently than they are here; it's good for the kids to see first hand that there is more than one way to get things done."

'Come a Long Way'

Bruce said he was pleasantly surprised at how "outgoing" Jin-ping is and how easy he is to get to know. He said he has received no negative reaction to Yang's coming from a Communist nation.

"When I was in high school, I was on the debate team," recalled Bruce. "I once (in 1956) had to debate the proposition 'Resolved: Communist China Should be Recognized by the United States.' I think we've come a long way since then.

"Many of our students will be going into business and government. I think it's important for them to recognize that China has the largest population in the world, that we are going to have to communicate with the Chinese and live in peace with them.

"The more students we have who can speak Chinese and understand the culture," continued Bruce, "the more likely we are to understand China's perspective on the world. That does not mean that our students will necessarily agree with what the Chinese government does, but I think it does mean they will have a greater understanding of why the Chinese do things the way they do."

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