LRCCS: What was your first impression of America?
Chen Laoshi: The whole environment, the whole society was totally different from China. During my first visit, I felt people in the U.S. were more relaxed, and smiled more often compared to Chinese. And you won’t get into trouble because of something you said.
After I went back from the States, a tragedy happened in China - the Tiananmen Square Protest in 1989. As a matter of fact, protests were seen in all major cities in China but without bloodshed. So during that time, students from my school were also protesting, hunger striking, and sitting on the railroad to block military transportation.
I was very unhappy during that time. First of all, policemen came to my school for investigations. They would always come to me. Fortunately enough, the policemen felt sympathy for students, too. They came to me and said: “President Chen, you can just say whatever you want to say. We only need something to report back to our superior.” There was another policeman who said: “We have no idea why on earth we are sent to colleges.”
However, the government was more terrifying than the police. People in my job were not allowed to go home at night. I had a temporary bed in my office. The Education Bureau could call me anytime, even in the middle of the night. They wanted to know where the students were, and what they were doing.
I visited my students when they were fasting on a public square. When I saw them, I could not say a single word. All I could do was hold their hands. I was deeply moved. Of course, you know what happened in Beijing later. In fact, there were also many things that happened in Hangzhou, and at our school that agonized me.
Two weeks after the Fourth of June, I quit my administrative job, and started considering leaving China. With the help of some professors at the UM School of Education, I got to come to America for a second time. At this time, I started to consider staying. And staying not just for living, but for making the largest contribution to society I could. For the first time, I got to choose what that would be - and I thought, I wanted to teach Chinese.
Around that time there still weren’t many Americans studying Chinese, but I knew that was about to change, and that was a big opportunity for me. I thought I could do three things. First, I could set up or improve a specific school’s Chinese language program. Later at UM I realized this wasn’t something I could do by myself - I needed all the teachers and all the classes to improve. The second thing was to create some kind of a breakthrough in one aspect of Chinese language study. So later I started to develop Business Chinese as an area of language study. With the support of UM, I started the Business Chinese Workshop (BCW) series, and in a ten year period held 4 national and international conferences. Perhaps UM and ALC didn’t think it was a big deal, but in the world of Chinese language education, it was quite important. The third thing was to make a contribution to the field of Chinese education in America. I joined the Chinese Language Teachers Association (CLTA), and felt responsible for improving the organization. Almost every year I attended the annual CLTA conference as a presenter or discussant or panel chair, and also published several articles in the CLTA scholarly journal. At one point I was on the CLTA board of directors. Aside from this, I worked with some colleagues in the publication of two important textbooks. I’ve also helped evaluate Chinese language programs and teachers in several higher education institutions.
LRCCS: You just mentioned there were three things you wanted to do when you came to America. But would you think they’re actually the same thing?
Chen Laoshi: You got it. These three things were indeed three aspects of one thing – Chinese language education. They were very clear in my head from the start. When I came to this country the second time in 1990, I was already 46 years old - I knew I didn’t have much time left in my career. But I decided that no matter what, I would accomplish these three goals. To make these goals happen, I decided to go to Brigham Young University (BYU) for a PhD program. This school was affiliated with the LDS Mormon church, so their language programs were exquisite. By the time I started school I was already 47. I thought I had much more experience than the younger peers, so I should also be a better student. So I put a lot of pressure on myself.
LRCCS: When did you first come to UM to teach Chinese?
Chen Laoshi: 1995, before I finished my dissertation at BYU. I was very excited, because this was my third time coming to UM and Ann Arbor. The previous two times when I left, I never thought I’d come back. But I did come back the third time -- as a faculty member. So if I believed in fate, I’d say it was my destiny to spend the second half of my life in Ann Arbor and UM.
LRCCS: How did you become so determined?
Chen Laoshi: When I was in China, all the work I did was never my choice. At that time, all we knew was to listen to the Party. If the party told you to do something, you did it. So you might say that people of my generation lost their sense of self. But after I came to America I finally had a chance to find myself. I could choose what to do for the second half of my life. And now I’m quite happy, because it seems like I’ve made the right choices. I chose to work with language education, I chose to go to BYU, I chose to teach at UM. I also chose to stay at UM. Most people don’t know this, but in 2001 I was offered a tenure-track position at the University of Virginia, but I eventually decided to stay at UM instead. And I’ve never regretted it. I’ve never forgot the three things I decided to do, and I’ve worked very hard to achieve them. But in 2013 when I received the Walton Lifetime Achievement award, the highest honor for Chinese education in the U.S., I was pretty surprised. This was because I’d never expected any kind of award, and this was also because only a few people had received this award.
LRCCS: What is the most important trait of being a good teacher?
Chen Laoshi: I think for a teacher, the most important thing isn’t his educational background, it isn’t his teaching experience, it’s not even his character or personality. What could be more important than those things? I believe it’s motivation, dedication, and the spirit of self-sacrifice. No matter how good your other things, if from the bottom of your heart you don’t love your work and your students, if you lack motivation and devotion, that’s just passing the time - you’ll never become a truly good teacher. You could also approach the question from another angle - it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about China or America, good students or not so good students. But if your students remember and miss you after the passage of decades, then you’re definitely a good teacher.
LRCCS: Thanks so much, Chen Laoshi. We’ve taken up much of your time, but our readers certainly appreciate it.
Chen Laoshi: Happy to have taken part. I hope your readers find my story useful.