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Chinese teacher adapts and thrives in Swain County

After making the journey to Western North Carolina from China, Niu Jun discovered Bryson City was nothing like she imagined.

Driving through the town of about 1,300, a confused Niu Jun asked, “Bryson City? Where’s the city?”

Niu Jun, 33, hails from Harbin, a city in northeast China, where about 10 million people reside.

Niu Jun and Swain County found one another through an extremely selective program funded by the State Department.

The Teachers of Critical Languages program matches schools with teachers of Chinese and Arabic. Of 120 applicants, Niu Jun is one of only 15 Chinese teachers placed nationwide this school year.

Niu Jun has won five national awards for English, as well as several National Excellent Mentor Awards.

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“She is definitely the best of the best,” said Terri Caron, Niu Jun’s mentor teacher.

Niu Jun currently teaches Chinese to 22 students at Swain County High School. Up until now, these students had two options: take Spanish at the school or learn another language online.

Caron said it was vital that students have opportunities to learn other languages, especially Chinese.

“More people speak Chinese in the world than English,” said Caron. “Our kids need this opportunity to be globally competitive.”

But Swain County high school students don’t need to venture far to use their newly attained language skills. Caron said speaking Chinese can be a benefit right here in WNC.

“The [Cherokee] casino would hire and pay a good deal of money to those who could speak fluent Mandarin,” Caron said.

About one in five North Carolina jobs rely on international trade, according to research done by the school.

While students find the language challenging, some are excited to continue learning with advanced classes.

So far, Niu Jun has taught students how to count from 1 to 100, write many Chinese characters, and learn colors, names of family members, and how to introduce themselves and other people.

She’s even taught them how to order food from a Chinese menu. Niu Jun recently took the students on a field trip to Yummi Yummi, a Chinese restaurant in Bryson City. She played waitress and took the students’ orders in Chinese. Students went so far as to use chopsticks to eat their food.

They’ve come a long way from their first class when they learned how to say their names in Chinese. Niu Jun made name plates for each student that displayed their Chinese name and zodiac sign.

While students are most interested in learning about Chinese culture, much of their time is devoted to picking up a complex language.

Niu Jun said there’s a lot of memorization and rules involved, especially when it comes to writing Chinese characters.

“You have to memorize the sequences ... not like a drawing,” Niu Jun said.

Pronunciation, or pinyin, is also challenging, as each word can be pronounced in at least four different ways. For example, “ma” can mean mother, linen, a horse, or a curse depending on how one says it.

With about 11 students in each class, Niu Jun has plenty of chances to correct pronunciation.

“We can do a lot of face-to-face practice,” Niu Jun said.

That is not the case at the school in China where Niu Jun has taught English for 11 years. With about 11,000 students attending, classes there have 60 to 70 students on average.

A disciplinarian would join the sole teacher in each class to keep students listening and in line.

But those students have been learning English ever since elementary school, while Swain County high schoolers have never before encountered Chinese.

Settling in and stepping out

Cultural exchange is a two-way street with Niu Jun. As her students, friends and host family find out more about life in China, Niu Jun is soaking up American culture.

She’s driving around town in a Cadillac SUV, donated for the year by Mountain Ford. The windy, rural roads are a far cry from the urban streets she’s accustomed to navigating in Harbin, which is known in China as the Ice City due to its famous ice sculptures.

If the tables were turned, Niu Jun’s mentor teacher Caron isn’t sure she would be hitting the roads in China, after visiting Beijing with three other Swain administrators a few months ago.

“There’s a lot of people there,” said Caron. “I would not want to drive on their streets.”

Niu Jun has not turned away from adventure since arriving in Swain County in August. She’s gone rafting, hiking, kayaking and most recently — belly dancing.

“She really is stepping out,” said Julie Thorner, who is hosting Niu Jun. “She’ll try pretty much everything.”

Thorner complimented Niu Jun for being so good-humored even when she’s out of her element.

“She handles it with perfect grace and poise,” said Thorner, who jumped at the chance to host Niu Jun as soon as she found out about the high school’s plans.

Thorner can not only speak Chinese, but she lived in China about 25 years ago through one of the first study abroad programs in China.

Thorner was hoping to score some home cooked Chinese meals after Niu Jun arrived, but there was one major obstacle. Niu Jun had never stepped into a kitchen. Living in an urban environment meant Niu Jun spent most of her time eating out. Thorner has changed that, though. She’s shown Niu Jun the ropes, and Niu Jun now cooks several times a week.

Niu Jun is so proud about cooking meals for herself that she’s posed for pictures in the kitchen to send to her family back home.

Niu Jun’s kept in constant contact with her husband and family, with video chats every single day. Sometimes, she leaves the webcam on even as she watches TV to create the effect of having her family with her in the same room.

Meanwhile, Thorner recalls talking to her parents only once or twice during her entire trip to China.

Niu Jun has triggered flashbacks for Thorner.

Every time Niu Jun comes across a new word or phrase, she takes out a notebook, writes down the meaning and pronounces it over and over.

“Just like I did,” said Thorner.

China was a different place then. Hardly anybody owned a car, there were no refrigerators or stoves, and everyone wore Mao suits and referred to each other as “comrade.”

A change in the word’s meaning show that times have certainly changed since then. Young people use “comrade” now as slang for a homosexual.

Still, Niu Jun is amazed that Thorner remembers Chinese at all. She often tells Thorner it’s time to see China in its more modern form.

Thorner hopes to do just that in 2012, along with her two sons, Tyler and Timmy. Thorner’s boys are already getting a head start with Chinese lessons from Niu Jun.

“I want my kids to be exposed to multiple languages and cultures,” said Thorner.

During a recent power outage brought on by a snowy weekend, the four lit up candles and lanterns, and sat around a big fire. They sang songs, in Chinese and English. Thorner sang the only Chinese song she knew: the national anthem.

Each new moment seems to bring another opportunity to learn for Niu Jun and those she interacts with.

Niu Jun’s American experience has already extended beyond Bryson City. She has taken advantage of holidays to travel to Miami, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and San Francisco. She hopes to visit New York, Toronto and Niagara Falls during spring break.

When she goes back home, she’ll bring a wealth of knowledge to her students in China about American life.

“I have a lot to share with my students and other colleagues,” said Niu Jun. “I can show a lot of pictures...[and] videotape some of the lessons.”

Niu Jun said it was hard to pinpoint what her favorite part about America is, but she finally settled on one.

“I like American people best,” said Niu Jun. “People here are very, very nice.”

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