The Joys of Learning Chinese

Second grade teacher Renee Barber sat down with Greenhill’s new Lower School Chinese teacher, Ms. Nusrat, for an insightful look into how Chinese language and culture can teach us more than we think.

Last winter, in the cold, but beautiful city of Dalian, on China’s northeastern coast, Dean of Student Affairs Nusi Laoshi stood lecturing in her sparsely decorated classroom at the International University. This marked her twenty-third year of teaching Mandarin and Chinese history to Chinese minority students from across the country. She’d also spent a year teaching at an elementary school associated with the university’s vast education system. Nusi loved sharing her deep knowledge of China, not only with her native students, but also with visiting students from other countries. In 2006, her employer assigned Nusi to guide Chinese teacher Warren Frerichs and his band of Greenhill explorers through Xinjiang province, and the stage was set for an invitation that would beckon Nusi’s daring nature, along with her passion for “fresh experiences,” and call her halfway around the world to teach in America.

Today, with months of international red tape behind her, Nusi Laoshi, now known to her students as Ms. Nusrat, leans over a desk in her cozy, but vibrantly decorated classroom on the second floor of Greenhill’s lower school. A giant red dragon hugs the wall behind her as she rifles through files of student work, pulling out the best examples of Chinese maps which her second and fourth graders have carefully colored and labeled. “They are so smart!” she exclaims, remarking on how quickly and accurately her new pupils can identify the Chinese captions for Hunan or Shandong provinces. Her students’ enthusiasm and aptitude for learning clearly energize Ms. Nusrat as she lays a foundation for Greenhill’s new lower school Chinese program.

Only a few hours earlier, I too had a taste of the students’ excitement for Chinese while chatting with my second graders about their favorite activities in Ms. Nusrat’s class. Map-making topped their list, which also included “wacky things” like playing ping pong and eating noodles with chopsticks. “I like drawing tou fa, too,” chimed Ashley, describing how Ms. Nusrat calls out hair in Chinese and the students draw it on a whiteboard. She might call out ear or nose and they will draw those face parts as well, hoping that they’ve translated accurately.

Even writing Chinese characters is pure artistic pleasure for many. “The characters are really unique,” says Ashley, “It’s like art because you’re making lots of lines. It’s not like English letters.” But isn’t it daunting for these young second graders to learn one hundred Chinese characters – two hundred for fourth graders – within the first four months of school? If it is, students don’t complain, but rather they talk of the assignment as a challenge they are eager to master. “There are a lot of characters,” Grant says, “and sometimes they’re hard. But Ms. Nusrat turns on Chinese music while we work and it makes writing easier!”

The Fourth Grade presents Ms. Nusrat with a special welcome gift.

As the students continue describing their class, it becomes clear that Ms. Nusrat has other special skills for making the study of Chinese a pleasant experience for her young learners. “She’s never mean,” her students say. “She doesn’t argue or get too mad, even when we do things we’re not supposed to do in school.” It’s true that if you pass by her classroom on any given day, Ms. Nusrat will be smiling and waving her hand in the air like a conductor as her students shout out Chinese words at a decibel level not typical of an American classroom. This lively communication is expected in her country, notes Ms. Nusrat. And according to Mr. Frerichs, head of Greenhill’s Chinese program, “The Chinese are more open with behavior parameters in early childhood.”

Now in the fifth month of her new teaching position, and with the children responding positively to her elixir of patience and practice, Ms. Nusrat feels a “stronger and stronger” bond with them. “My students move me deeply,” she says, full of emotion. “The first time I heard them say hello to me in Chinese, I knew that I wanted to stay here. I felt satisfaction and joy.”

Perhaps as she imparts an appreciation of China to Greenhill lower schoolers, Ms. Nusrat can also cultivate a deeper reverence for the abundant resources we take for granted. Paper products, even simple toiletry items, came at a premium in the barren deserts of Xinjiang, where Ms. Nusrat grew up, so the waste she often sees here saddens her. “If we teach respect as a core principle,” claims Ms. Nusrat, “then we need to respect the things we use, including the effort and resources that go into making them.” To explain what she means, Ms. Nusrat opens her desk drawer and grabs a handful of well-used pencils, noting that while their erasers have been rubbed flat, the pencils still have plenty of lead inside. Too often she sees pencils like this thrown away, but she saves them. She drops several into a tin sitting on top of a student’s desk, pairing them with a large Magic Rub to extend their usefulness. Nusrat laments a similar waste of food in the cafeteria, and even, she says outspokenly, a lack of respect for the valuable resource of time.

Always eager for “learning new things,” Ms. Nusrat uses her spare moments for reading. Today, she’s engrossed in the spiritual writings of J. Krishnamurti. She journals daily, and you can often find her texting friends a couplet she’s created for their round robin of poetry-writing via i-phone. If you ask her what she misses about China, she’ll mention her large, happy family and a longing for handmade Chinese noodles. Thankfully, she’s developed a taste for Texas steak, which she now cooks for her host family.

Some might describe Ms. Nusrat’s encounter with Greenhill travelers a few years ago as a happy accident, fueled by kindred openness and interest in how people live in this world. Some might say it was destiny, waiting to happen. Either way, Ms. Nusrat brings a world of happiness to her current second and fourth grade students, who hope she stays for a very long visit. And if we are open to it, Ms. Nusrat may offer fresh perspectives and life lessons for the adults in her new school as well.

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