Craving Chinese? With an eye to the future, pupils learn about Asian nation at Bangor summer camp
By David Jacobson
Bangor Daily News
Thursday, 07/06/2006
Edition: all, Section: c, Page


Cooking Chinese dumplings, speaking Mandarin, doing tai chi.

Not common activities found at children's summer camps in Maine. Yet 10 youngsters, clad in multicolored silk shirts and pants, were doing just that Monday in a classroom on the Husson College campus in Bangor. The kids, ranging in age from 5 to 15, sang Chinese songs and played Chinese games throughout the morning.

Welcome to Chinese Dragon Camp, the summer session of the Bangor Chinese School, held in Peabody Hall at Husson. From June 19 through Aug. 25, the program consists of six one-week sessions, running from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Jing Zhang and Suzhong Tian are the driving forces behind the Bangor Chinese School and are its sole teachers. The Chinese couple moved from Beijing to the United States in 1998. At the time, Suzhong Tian sought to complete his Ph.D. in forestry at the University of Maine. He now teaches Chinese at Husson and the University of Maine, while Jing Zhang is a computer programmer by profession but devotes her time to the school. The couple has two daughters, Mei, 6, and Melissa, 4.

Zhang began offering Chinese lessons and founded the Bangor Chinese School in 2005. Through the school, she seeks to foster a greater understanding of her native country and culture and promote closer ties between China and the U.S. More than 300 adults and children have enrolled to date, and classes are beginning to fill for the fall session kicking off Sept. 5.

Demand for Chinese instruction is no surprise to Maine officials. The Bangor Chinese School and other existing foreign language programs in Maine, they say, are valuable resources as China's influence as an emerging superpower continues to grow across the nation.

"China, in particular," Gov. John Baldacci noted last week, "is an important nation to understand. It is an ever-emerging economic player, even as its culture - with thousands of years of history - is transforming as a result."

Jorge Gonzalez and Kathy Tenga of Bangor reflect that influence. Their daughter Isabella is enrolled this summer in the Chinese Dragon Camp and began learning Chinese a year and a half ago. Isabella already speaks Spanish.

"It's [Chinese] used in business and for international trade in China," Gonzalez remarked Monday. "The whole idea is that children should be exposed to diversity at a very young age. It's not a matter of choice anymore. We don't live in a bubble."

Barbara Pepin of Bangor is like-minded. Her son Kyle, 11, has always been interested in geography. She found out about the Chinese Dragon Camp through the Camp Bangor Scholarship Program.

"We wanted him to learn a different culture," she said. "This would be a perfect opportunity." Pepin's son and his classmates were fully immersed in another culture Monday as they practiced pronouncing "hello," "goodbye," "please," and "thank you" in Chinese.

In the classroom brightly decorated with Chinese paintings and related maps and photographs, Zhang first introduced herself to the children and asked them to talk a little about why they had enrolled in her camp.

Madeleine Coffey, 10, of Bangor said she wanted to learn Chinese in order to communicate with a China-born boy she knows in his native tongue. The fact her mother Beth had once lived in China was another motivating factor.

Coffey and the other youngsters practice Chinese vocabulary before moving on to counting. Within minutes, they were able to say how old they were and cite the number of people in their family. As part of the weeklong session, the children also learn about Chinese folk arts and do related activities such as playing musical instruments and making intricate paper cutouts. They also go on field trips and learn about Chinese cuisine at Zhang's home.

For Ruth and Michael Vigue of Pittsfield, the unique summer camp is giving their China-born daughter, Elizabeth, a window into her native culture and language. The couple found out about the camp at this year's Chinese New Year celebration held at Husson. The festivities are attended by Chinese families in the area.

Elizabeth Vigue, 8, started learning Chinese at a local Montessori school three years ago, and will be attending the Bangor Chinese School this fall. For now, though, she is learning to say "zai jian" (goodbye) and having "just plain fun," according to her mother.

To find out about the Chinese Dragon Camp or Bangor Chinese School, contact Jing Zhang at 990-0710 or zhang_jing2000@yahoo.com or visit www.bangorchinese.com.