When Ron Bloom joined a San Gabriel Valley language club to practice Mandarin, he figured he might be one of the few non-Chinese in the group.
Then he met the club’s leader: Victor Hugo Miranda Jr.
“I was expecting a Taiwanese guy,” said Bloom, 49, a radar scientist in El Segundo who studied Mandarin in college. “I’ve never met a guy from South America who speaks Chinese. I almost fell over.”
Miranda, 35, originally from Costa Rica, took the helm of Mandarin Friends two years ago and has helped transform it from a core membership of about 150 to more than 700 registered members, who interact with each other largely over the Web. Members are mostly young professionals and include Asians and non-Asians.
“He’s an inspiration,” said Francis Lee, 30, a Chinese American cinematographer from Westchester who joined the group two months ago to keep up with his home-taught Mandarin. “He feels the whole world should learn Mandarin. Why not people from different ethnic groups?”
Miranda’s passion for Mandarin and his belief that anyone can learn the language has turned this cultural outsider into a magnet for the club, even among Asians, Lee said.
“I was born in this country,” he said, adding that Chinese people here “see me as an outsider, even if I look Chinese and my parents are Chinese. When we try to speak Mandarin to them, they feel uncomfortable speaking to someone who is not fluent.”
With China rising as an economic power, the popularity of Mandarin has exploded around the world, experts say. The motivation to master the language is no longer limited to ethnic Chinese wanting to connect to their roots but expanding to a broader audience looking for an edge in the global marketplace.
“Some people still feel speaking Chinese is an innate ability,” Miranda said. “Chinese is a world language. I’d like to see myself as part of a new trend where foreigners are learning Chinese and fully capable of speaking it . . . I want to show other people it can be done.”
Speaking and teaching Chinese was not a future Miranda could have imagined for himself growing up in Costa Rica, the son of a taxi driver and telephone repairman.
At 17, he immigrated to Los Angeles with his father. He learned English and attended Cal State Northridge for a few years until visa problems sent him back to Costa Rica.
After teaching English for four years, Miranda applied for and received in 2001 an all-expenses-paid scholarship to study Chinese in Taiwan.
Despite the challenges of adjusting to a new culture, Miranda thrived on the adventure of living in a foreign country. Instead of one year in Taiwan, he stayed five.
Returning to Los Angeles in 2006, he found work using his multi-language skills, including a job as a Spanish translator for an online gaming company and as a marketer for Tomato Bank, a Chinese American bank based in Southern California. In 2009, Miranda decided to go back to school and get a degree in linguistics so he could pursue his dream of one day starting his own business. To pay for it, he teaches Chinese and Spanish at a children’s language school in Orange County.
Parents are impressed with Miranda’s mastery of the language.
“It reinforces the reason why we’re placing our son in the Chinese class in the first place,” said Diana Ramos, a doctor from Laguna Beach who hired Miranda to tutor her 3-year-old son, Jimmy, in Mandarin. “It shows that everybody can learn it.”
Hoping to meet new people and practice his Mandarin at the same time, Miranda first became involved with Mandarin Friends about a year after he returned to the U.S.
It turned out the club’s organizer was a Cantonese speaker looking for a successor. Impressed by Miranda’s language skills and enthusiasm, she tapped him to run the group.
This coincided with a growing demand for U.S. language schools to teach Mandarin, a trend that is likely to continue, said Gay Yuen, professor of education at Cal State L.A. Since 9/11, Arabic, Persian and Mandarin have all become increasingly popular, he said.
Miranda “is probably in the minority now,” Yuen said. “What we are hoping for is that there would be more like him in the future.”
Former club member Gary Isse, 32, a one-time Pasadena resident who grew up speaking English and Spanish because of his Argentine parents, said he joined Mandarin Friends after returning from his first trip to China in 2006. He said he realized he wanted to go back to China but not without getting more acquainted with the language.
“I spoke practically no Chinese when I first joined the group,” said Isse, speaking by phone from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, where he moved two years ago to start his own business consulting firm. “Now I can speak enough to get around every day.”
In addition to establishing his own business, Isse married a Chinese woman he met at a friend’s party. She recently gave birth to twin girls.
“China is growing rapidly in global importance. If people want to take part in this global world we are creating, I think they have to know Chinese,” Isse said. “But it’s very hard for a non-Chinese speaker to learn Chinese. Hugo’s group . . . gives people a chance to meet others who have gone through the experience. There should be more groups like it.”