Susan Blumberg-Kason's Learning Story


I’d always had a love of Chinese culture. Growing up in suburban Chicago, I heard, at an early age, my grandparents’ tales of trips to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Then when I was in middle school, my father started talking about his new Chinese students, fresh off the plane from Shanghai and Beijing. These students joined my family for Thanksgiving dinners, Passover seders, and 4th of July barbecues. Friendly and doting, they quickly became my role models. When I started college in Baltimore, I looked into taking Mandarin. Although I attended a small liberal arts college, I was allowed to enroll in Mandarin at Johns Hopkins University, a college I never thought I’d get into on my own.My first day of Mandarin was intimidating. Thirty students, mostly biomedical engineering, Chinese-Americans, sat in the classroom, talking amongst themselves. As the lone non-Hopkins student, and one of the few non-Chinese, I felt different and more than a little insecure. How would I ever keep up with my new classmates? Was I doomed to fail in a language I had no prior exposure to, unlike these students, who all spoke it at home, but couldn’t read or write?Then the teacher arrived. Chi Laoshi, or Teacher Chi (pronounced Chee), entered the room, bouncing in her size 5 shoes and illuminating the room with her cheery, four foot eleven presence. Chi Laoshi didn’t know me from the other students and when she called on me later that week to repeat a basic greeting, Have you eaten yet?, she praised my pronunciation just like she had the other students.I managed to stay afloat that year, learning about 200 characters after writing them over and over again, even on weekend nights. When I brought my study abroad applications to Chi Laoshi for recommendations that spring, she proudly filled them out and returned them to me.’What’s your first choice?’ she asked me, handing back my applications for programs in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.’Hong Kong, although I know people don’t speak Mandarin there,’ I replied. ‘But they seem to have a good Mandarin program at the university.”You can always go to Taiwan for a vacation and practice Mandarin there. Or China. Once you’re in Asia, all those countries are so close.’ Her wide smile beamed and her eyes revealed pride in a student who wanted to further her Mandarin skills.When I returned from my year in Hong Kong and enrolled in the highest level of Mandarin Chi Laoshi taught, I no longer felt like an outsider at Hopkins. After graduation, I moved 40 minutes south to Washington, DC, and continued Mandarin with Chi Laoshi, who also taught at the Hopkins DC campus. These classes were small and intimate, with no more than six students in a class. Again I was the only non-Hopkins student and not even enrolled in a graduate program at the time. But with Chi Laoshi’s encouragement and belief in me, I had overcome my insecurities and had become proficient enough to read a Chinese newspaper, knowing more than 2000 characters. After two years of Chinese classes with Chi Laoshi in DC, I said good-bye to her, again moving to Hong Kong to study. I never saw Chi Laoshi after I moved to Hong Kong, but when friends and family marvel that I can still speak Mandarin after all these years, I think back to Chi Laoshi. Without her confidence in me and encouragement, I probably never would have gotten beyond taxi Chinese. Xie xie nin, Chi Laoshi. Thank you, Teacher Chi.