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Language allows for Chinese connections


Chen Qiujing, Elwood Yoder, He Jinqian and Yang Dong

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October 12, 2007
- Jeanette Hanson

SICHUAN PROVINCE, China — Sichuan Province is a good place to avoid in August. Temperatures soar while heavy rains increase the humidity, making classrooms and accommodations uncomfortable. But for Mennonite Partners in China (MPC) teachers, the summer routine is set.

It’s all about language.

After several weeks of volunteer teaching, hosting families or relaxing and resting after a busy semester, MPC teachers come together for a month of Chinese language study, teaching workshops, cultural learning and worship. When they finish, some of those teachers return to teach English to Chinese students so passionate about learning that they study during their summer breaks.

This summer, a group from Virginia Mennonite Missions also took part in the learning process, joining summer English classes at a Nanchong church.

While some English as a Second Language organizations boast that their one-month training will prepare people for teaching anywhere in the world (and some claim to accomplish this in only five days), MPC requires even experienced teachers to study Chinese every summer holiday. The lessons show a spirit of reciprocity and the willingness to learn from Chinese hosts.

“The more language I know, the more connections with people I can make. Just a little bit of language melts walls of strangeness and suspicion,” said Phil Bender who serves with his wife, Julie, through Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network.

Tearing down walls of strangeness and suspicion is a vital ministry in a context where much of the media and government rhetoric on both sides of the ocean builds those walls higher. Todd Hanson, with MPC through Witness and Mission Network, heard a student describe her role less as a language learner than as a peace builder.

“I build peace when I learn a language because my role then becomes one of building bridges between two peoples and two cultures,” the student said.

This doesn’t mean that this dual role is easy. The teachers through Mennonite Partners have many demands on their time. Julie Bender said the summer study greatly adds to her fluency in Chinese, but that level is hard to maintain when teaching English full-time.

The motivation for studying varies from student to student, but commitment to learn this challenging language is strong, both among Chinese students and the Mennonite Partners teachers.

“I study Chinese so I won't cry at restaurants anymore because they can't understand my simple order,” said William Gray (Mennonite Central Committee) after a year in China.

Gray said sheer survival sometimes depends on shaping Chinese tones correctly and recognizing appropriate characters. Various MPC volunteers have taken buses to wrong cities, ordered pig’s ear instead of mushrooms and asked to kiss a teacher (instead of to ask a question).

Despite their Chinese-language foibles, English teachers are in high demand in China. Even during summer holidays, school gates are littered with flyers advertising summer schools and English study is by far the most popular offering. Local Christian congregations have used the interest for community ministry and service. The five Virginia Mennonite Missions teachers from Harrisonburg, Va., joined the Nanchong Christian congregation’s summer English school, held for the first time in the new Nanchong church facility. Ninety students in five classes studied and played for two weeks with native English speakers.

The Nanchong congregation has organized summer English classes for the last five years, and Mennonite teachers have taught in most of these. The congregation finds this an effective way to both minister to and serve their local community.

Pastor Wang Guanghui of Nanchong church, said, "These summer classes have greatly increased the visibility of the church and have begun to change people's attitudes in the neighborhood.  They see us concerned about education and their children and not just meeting the needs of our own congregation."

Children and grandchildren of congregation members, as well as friends, neighbors and those who hear about it through word of mouth may attend. Because the church is not a registered school, it cannot advertise for students. But since it uses volunteer teachers, students whose families could only dream about the expensive summer classes offered at schools and universities can come to church and learn from native English-speakers.

Even in the new building, bare cement floors, walls, and ceilings make for very noisy classrooms. High heat and humidity, with only an electric fan as defense, took its toll on both teachers and students. Restless students, teachers who can communicate only in English to students with limited English ability and cramped conditions made for extremely challenging teaching. Learning opportunities included baseball (with a plastic ball and broomstick bat), dodgeball or paper airplane-flying, which provided great language learning opportunities: “Good job. Run, run. Throw the ball.”

Response from students was positive; already parents are stopping Mennonite Partners teachers and church members on the street by parents wanting to register early to get their children into the Nanchong church summer English class.

MPC teachers work in Chinese higher education institutions while their Chinese counterparts have a chance to spend a semester at Eastern Mennonite University. They also experience what it is like to be fish out of water where one can’t buy the ‘correct’ spices or the ‘right’ cuts of meat. They also experience the walls of suspicion and strangeness and find that they, too, become peace builders.

Jeanette and Todd Hanson and their children, serve with the Mennonite Partners in China program in Nanchong through Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness. Together with other MPC teachers, they provide a Christian presence as well as English instruction in colleges and universities across China.

Sidebar: Unconventional English


David Yuan, Todd, children and Jeanette Hanson

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SICHUAN PROVINCE, China — While many classmates were enrolled in English classes for the summer, David Yuan from Chengdu, Sichuan, China, learned English through Dutch Blitz and Monopoly, a tea party with a 5-year-old, and swimming.

This unconventional English learning environment was created when Yuan, 14, volunteered to care for Mennonite Partner in China teachers’ children during their month of summer language training.

David isn’t a conventional English language learner. He learned English as a child in Harrisonburg, Va., while his father spent several years studying at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.. He returned to China with fluency in English that his teachers coveted. In his first week of class in grade two in Chengdu, the headmaster called his parents to come and get him during the English classes.

He has just now, in junior high, begun to study English with his class.

David’s father, Peter Yuan, teaches at the Sichuan Theological Seminary in Chengdu. While David has spent most of his life in Chengdu, he is growing up in an environment very different from his classmates. Besides the different language learning experience, he also lives in a household with parents who are working hard to educate, train and support young pastors, his father said of the interesting and unconventional life they lead in China..

“There is very little time and we have been given a wonderful gift of grace to see God’s work in our land and to participate in that work,” he said.