In the summer of 2008, I had the privilege to live and work for a Mandarin Chinese immersion program called STARTALK Chinese Academy, sponsored by the VA Governor’s School. I worked with 6 other remarkable teachers and RA’s, and was led by the one and only Dr. Zhijuan Zhang, program director. The eight of us were in charge of filling as much Chinese language into over 30 gifted, hand-selected high school students during the summer long immersion camp.
It was one of the best experiences of my life. As a student of Chinese, I was surrounded by native speakers (the other 7 employees). Our meetings were held completely in Chinese – having only studied two years prior, I was…well let us just say, it was quite challenge for me to keep up with the topic of conversation, let alone any responsibility that was being relegated to me. At any rate, life gets rather dull if we are not scared half-to-death every so often, right? At least that is what I told myself. A survival technique, if you will.
I spent most of my time with the students. We all woke up at (ugh…) 6:00 a.m. and walked together, as one bright-orange-lanyard-wearing 40-member family, through Monroe Park for breakfast at 7:00 a.m. I had to have the students in class by 8:00 a.m. Believe me, getting 32 high school students to relocate every hour is no easy task. Ever.
So the very first Chinese word we taught the students was ‘Ting!’ (pronounced as spelled, but with the tone starting from a low pitch, and finishing on a high pitch – similar to the boxing announcer’s, ‘Let’s,’ from, ‘Lllllllllet’s get ready to rumble!”). ‘Ting’ means ‘Stop’ in Chinese. Useful. Very useful. Especially when conglomerating an amoeba of excited/distracted high school students at numerous Richmond city cross-walks as road-raging motor-operating wildcats whiz dangerously past (oh yeah, did I mention we took a field trip to Washington D.C.?). So, if you ever find yourself maneuvering a group of Mandarin Chinese speakers through dangerously wild city streets, remember the word ‘Ting!’ and you will all survive. Cross my heart.
Once the kids were in class, my work day began. I walked from A to B to C to D to C to B to A again so that, come the end of lunch, the rest of our daily activities would run smoothly. Thank God for the help of colleagues Brian Chiang and Yan Gao – whom both saved the day on more than a few occasions (thank you!).
Finally, lights out was at 10:00 p.m., which translates into, “somewhere between 11:00 p.m. and midnight,” in Teenager – a language I once knew. Then it all began again at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. There was no such thing as a weekend. Just look at that picture above. Do you think that charming chap, Michael, in the red face-paint up front has time to rest for a ‘weekend’? You thunk right.
It was so exhausting but so much fun. I learned so much from the kids, my coworkers, and my advisors and we all developed truly unique relationships and meaningful friendships. I still hear from them from time to time, and that it always nice. Eventually, a year passed, and the following summer (last summer 2009) I worked at the VCU Clean Room doing cool things like designing memory resistors (what?). This new job was coincidentally located across street from Monroe Park. I was struck by intense melancholy on the days when I saw the new year’s high-schoolers walking in hoards through Monroe Park to their breakfast at 7:00 a.m.. From 100 yards away, those 30-some-odd kids wearing orange lanyards looked just like my old friends. ‘Ting!’