The song was popular in the mid-’60s. Today, half a century later, Lehr’s ballad seems more farsighted than farcical. Twenty percent of the world’s population speaks Chinese, according to the British Museum.
Similarly, the British Council notes that among 15- to 24-year-olds, 201.6 million speak Chinese; only 51.7 million speak English. That China’s economic growth from 2001 to 2011—second only to the United States—was 10.6 percent compared with the United States’ increase of 1.6 percent is testimony for the need to learn Chinese.
The Chinese newspaper, PEOPLE’S DAILY, estimates that Chinese is being taught at more than 2,000 colleges and universities in 85 countries.
Online courses also are available. One, offered from Middleburg, Vermont, advertises its Chinese courses with the sentence “Accelerate Your Child This Summer.”
Starting next Tuesday, July 1, courses in Chinese will be available in Beeville, taught by Annie Yu of Skidmore.
She was born in the northern China city of Ning’an, on the shore of the Mudan Jiang river, in 1971 when its population still was reeling under Mao Tse-Tung’s cultural revolution. Some of her earliest memories are associated with that vastly destructive social experiment.
“My father belonged to the Communist Party,” she says. “He was always away at meeting after meeting. I remember that before we could eat dinner we had to read from Mao’s little red book,” she says. “The people worshipped Mao like an idol.”
After being graduated from high school in Ning’an, she earned a music degree from a teacher training college.
Unlike today, when Chinese students begin to learn English in elementary school (Forbes Magazine reports there are 100,000 native English speakers teaching English in China), Yu didn’t receive any instruction in English until college and only then in a rudimentary form.
She worked for a radio station in Beijing. Her Chinese pronunciation was so perfect the Chinese government officially approved it.
Her second degree, in international business administration, allowed her to get a job at the airport in Beijing, working for a company that handled all the logistics of airline crew layovers. In the process, she started picking up more English.
In time, she was transferred to the staff of Ambassador magazine, published in both English and Chinese. Part of its coverage included interviews with ambassadors to China.
She also was assigned to assist entrepreneurs who wanted to open businesses in China, introducing them to the right people and helping them run the bureaucratic gauntlet of paperwork.
“I was then assigned to Dubai,” she says, “because there was such growth there.” Considered the cultural center of the Middle East, the metropolis of 2.1 million includes (so far) the world’s tallest skyscraper. “Many businesses want to open an office there because they gain a better reputation for having an office in such a dynamic place,” she says.
For the next eight years she assisted businessmen interested in doing work in China, including an oil professional from South Texas named Stewart Mortensen.
They married and, two years ago, moved to Skidmore.
She spent the next two years focused on meeting all the immigration requirements to obtain her green card. She has it and plans now to apply for American citizenship.
“I have noticed a growing interest in China,” she says. “Many people have asked me to teach them Chinese. Many more have said they want their children to learn Chinese.”
So, she decided to offer classes, not only in basic Chinese but also in generic Chinese and business Chinese.
However, she isn’t stopping there. Cognizant that trying to learn a new language without also learning about the culture is more difficult, she is offering eight classes (cost: $100) that include Chinese history, literature, art, tourism, social customs and habits.
And one thing more: food.
“Chinese food is known for its low salt, low fat and low oil,” she says, explaining that in an America equated with fast food, learning how to prepare Chinese food is a healthy alternative. “I would really like to make people be more healthy,” she says.
If her initial class is successful, Yu says she would like to approach Coastal Bend College about teaching Chinese there. “I would like to expand the classes to other cities: Corpus Christi, maybe San Antonio,” she says.
Her goals even reach back to her home country.
“If my students can reach a certain level of proficiency,” she says, “there are television stations that broadcast competitions for foreigners speaking Chinese. The best-speaking students may find there are career opportunities there for people who can speak both English and Chinese.”
“Even companies in China, that prefer to operate in Chinese,” Manoj Vohra, the Asia director at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told the BBC, “are looking for managers who speak both Chinese and English if they want to expand abroad.”
Yu is not the only person in Beeville teaching Chinese. At Thomas Jefferson Intermediate School, students in Tatiana Authement’s gifted and talented class learn basic Chinese writing and speaking (see BEE-PICAYUNE, Nov. 23, 2013).
Yu says her classes would be a logical next step for Authement’s students. To register, contact her at email@example.com.
Tom Lehr’s ditty might have been funny in the mid-1960s; not so many are laughing now.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 343-5222, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.