BANGOR, Maine — For Yue Deng, this school year is shaping up to be the adventure of a lifetime.
Deng, who also goes by “Louisa,” is one of eight educators from China who are in Maine this year as part of a state and nationwide push to increase teaching of world languages to prepare students to communicate in an increasingly small world.
Deng came to the U.S. through the Chinese Guest Teacher Program, a collaboration of the College Board, the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages, and China’s Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), according to the College Board Web site. The program arranges for teachers from China to teach in U.S. schools.
For Deng, a college English professor at Shenyang University, her yearlong teaching assignment at John Bapst Memorial High School marks her first visit to the United States.
In an interview last Thursday, after her first full day of classes at the private college preparatory high school on Broadway, Deng said she arrived in late July for a 10-day orientation program at Stanford University in California and then traveled east to Bangor, where she arrived on Aug. 6.
Deng said she has been made to feel welcome in her new community. She has been invited out for tours, shopping and meals and has gone out on a boating excursion “on the Penobscot River, to the bay to the sea.”
“I’ve been very lucky to be sent here because the people here are very nice and friendly to me. They have been very helpful,” she said.
She also visited the American Folk Festival twice and, coming from a city of 7.2 million people, felt perfectly at home among the crowd of thousands.
She said she has been provided with a spacious apartment with a fireplace, a feature with which she is especially pleased.
“That’s something I’ve only seen in movies,” she said, adding that she has been cooking on an electric stove for the first time because back home in China most people have gas stoves.
In China, she teaches college students ages 18 to 22. She has them watch English-language films, sing English-language songs and recite English-language poetry, among other things. Deng says she likes to use “golden oldies” songs in her teaching because the lyrics can be easily discerned, though she acknowledges that some of her young male students like to try to sing along with American rap and hip-hop.
Deng said last week that she expects to learn as much from her Maine students this school year as they will learn from her.
She will be teaching them some of the basics of the Chinese language, as well as about its long and varied history and its rich culture and philosophies.
On her side, she hopes to learn some American colloquialisms and what American teenagers think about the world and their place in it.
Headmaster Melville McKay said he could relate to the excitement Deng feels as she embarks on her yearlong teaching stint here.
“Twenty-five years ago, I was a language teacher in a public school in France courtesy of the [U.S.] Fulbright program. That’s how I started my teaching career,” McKay said last week.
“It was a great experience for me. I had never been abroad to Europe before. Now I get to welcome a teacher from China. It’s one of those coming-full-circle moments for me,” he said.
This school year is the second in which Bapst offers classes in Chinese language and culture, he said.
Last year, through the same program, students at Bapst learned Chinese from Ling Yang Peng.
“Last year, Mr. Peng, as the students called him, got things started very successfully. This year, we have Louisa. It’s like the Olympics. She arrives to take the baton and take it for another run around the track,” he said.
“Of course, in America, with the world economy being what it is, we’re increasingly aware that young people need language skills in order to take advantage of the opportunities that are opening up for them — the language skills that follow cultural growth and economic opportunity around the world,” McKay said.
“It wasn’t so long ago that a lot of schools had German, maybe Russian. Those are important languages but now there’s a really strong movement afoot to bring Chinese to American students,” he said. “And part of that motivation is that in China, English has become quite important.
“I don’t know what the number is this year, but there may be as many as 200 million Chinese young people, learning English,” McKay said. “It’s a big push there. Isn’t it interesting the United States has to catch up with China when it comes to promoting languages?”
Languages are about more than economics, he said.
“In America, we are known as being practical people who are maybe too worried about economic things,” he said. “But the other side of this is that it opens up a whole world to us because our relations with Asia have been really sort of incomplete, a war here or a war there.
“And what did we really know about not just Chinese literature, music and painting, you know, but the whole of Asia?
“For little John Bapst Memorial High School now to have a really vibrant Spanish program and a Chinese program, to go along with French and Latin which have been offered here from the beginning is a reflection of the changing world,” McKay said.
“We are so lucky we can do this here, literally because the [Chinese Guest Teacher Program] sponsored the program; with relatively little outlay on our part we were able to bring Chinese to our school. They launch it for us and it’s up to us to push it ahead and make it strong,” he said, adding, “If that’s not a good deal for Bapst, I don’t know what is.”