As a child, growing up under MAO Zedong’s Communist control, Eric Ruicheng Pei learned English, in part, by listening to Voice of America, an international radio and television broadcasting service.
“It was dangerous,” he said. “It was at a time where we (China) hadn’t opened to the outside world.”
But Pei’s teacher and family encouraged an open-minded approach, and above all, a devotion to education. His grandfather and great-grandfather were teachers. The family maxim was that virtue could be achieved through reading, especially the classics.
Those childhood experiences, and hours spent practicing foreign language with the radio, developed into Pei’s adult career – and prepared him for what he calls the “great adventure of my life.”
For years, Pei has taught English language and literature to Chinese college students as an associate professor at Liaoning University in Shenyang, China. Then, last year, Pei received a call asking if he’d like to act as a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence, teaching Chinese language for a year at Flathead Valley Community College in an American town called Kalispell.
The Fulbright Program is one of the most prestigious award programs worldwide, offering grants for international educational exchange for scholars, educators, graduate students and professionals. It is the first time FVCC has had a Fulbright Scholar.
Pei accepted, but then didn’t hear any news from the program or government for several weeks. “It’s a joke, I thought,” he said. Then, there was a little more news followed by another long delay. “I had almost forgotten about it,” Pei said. “Then they called, and three days later I had my visa and a plane ticket.”
As Pei flew into the Flathead Valley for the first time he kept looking out his window for city lights. The program coordinators had warned him about the cold weather, and Pei felt prepared: Shenyang often has spells as low or lower than winter temperatures here – just without much snow. The size difference, though, was a shock.
With about 7 million people, Pei’s hometown Shenyang is the largest city in northeastern China and among the 10 largest cities in China.
“It was so dark,” he said. “I thought, ‘I am like Robinson Crusoe flying onto a deserted island.’”
Living here and teaching Chinese has proved challenging. There are cultural differences: For example, Pei said he offended his students by assuming that Kalispell was akin to the rest of America. He misses his son and elderly mother desperately. And while any language requires time and effort, it’s even more difficult when there’s a great difference between one’s native language and the new one.
The only way to learn Chinese characters is to memorize them, and they don’t offer any hints or help for pronunciation, Alice Ford, one of Pei’s students and a local middle school teacher, said.
“It’s very intimidating,” she said, pointing to a homework assignment – a page of intricate Chinese characters to learn and translate.
In a recent class, Pei coaxed, jumped, and gesticulated as a small handful of students made their way haltering through basic Chinese sentences.
“I tell them stories, so that each character may have a story inside,” he said. “And I get very excited, sometimes I dance, sometimes sing songs, sometimes act queasy – all those things to help them relate or remember a character.”
Still, it’s difficult and there are often mistakes.
When asked to say their girlfriend was better looking than someone else’s, one student replied in Chinese: “My donkey friend is better looking than your donkey friend.” Pei sighed and laughed loudly. “When I go home, I don’t think I’ll ever be angry with my son again,” he said. “You are teaching me great patience.”
Pei, who is used to immersing himself in the study of English words and writings, says the one-year stint in America is also teaching him more about his own country.
His classes introduce the basics of the Chinese language, culture, geography, social humanity, cuisines and modern development of the country. Free public lectures give him a chance to share more about Chinese philosophy, literature and practices. Locals have been receptive – 24 students took Pei’s Chinese class last semester and last week’s public lecture was standing-room only.
“The curiosity of the people here has made me explore China more,” he said.
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