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Church Mandarin lessons

In this Oct. 23, 2012 photo, Catherine Ming Tu, an assistant professor at Millikin University, talks about a Chinese language class offered at the Sunrise School located in the Moundford Free Methodist Church in Decatur. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Mark Roberts)
In this Oct. 23, 2012 photo, Catherine Ming Tu, an assistant professor at Millikin University, talks about a Chinese language class offered at the Sunrise School located in the Moundford Free Methodist Church in Decatur. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Mark Roberts)

DECATUR (AP) — While the American presidential election was busy engaging in lots of intense China-bashing, a group of language students in Decatur were being sent home with some of the poetic thoughts of the late Mao Zedong, the first chairman of the Communist Party of China.

It turns out that Chairman Mao, in between fighting to establish the People's Republic, took a great leap forward into poetry whenever he had a moment. He wrote more than 20 published poems and Chinese scholars rank him as a pretty good wordsmith. One of his creations is called "Snow" and waxes lyrical about the Chinese countryside in winter and Mao's own place in a hot history of heroes. Learning it has been a homework assignment at Decatur's Sunrise Chinese School.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the school is that it exists at all. At a time when few long-established colleges or secondary schools in Central Illinois offer instruction in conversational Chinese, the Sunrise School not only teaches spoken Mandarin but the written version, too.

The school opened in February and is based in the basement of Moundford Free Methodist Church where, under the leadership of senior pastor Gerald Coates, the congregation has made it a prime mission to reach out to Decatur's diverse Chinese community which consists of everyone from restaurant workers to scientists and college professors. The school's 28-strong student body ranges from 3-year-olds through adults and is an eclectic mix: from younger Chinese born here whose parents want them to learn their native tongue, to westerners anxious to master the language of a resurgent world superpower.

Students pay $15 each for each two-hour Sunday afternoon "session" (10 sessions make a semester) and are taught by native Chinese who spice their learning with everything from communal snacks to fun and games.

And whether you rate Mao's poetry or not, there is no doubt the country he forged in the blood of revolution has become a major trading partner for local companies such as Caterpillar Inc. In the cold light of 21st century reality, getting your tongue around Mandarin seems to make a lot more business sense than mastering the French, German or Italian of a bankrupt Europe circling the economic drain.

"All of a sudden I am getting it," said Bill Trimble, a Decatur attorney and keen student. "I am able to read some characters and I am able to understand spoken Chinese; it's very exciting and an incredible opportunity."

And his whole family is getting it, too. His wife, Lisa, is learning alongside their home-schooled sons Garrett, 12, and Aaron, 8. The Trimbles have looked out on the long march into the future of our trading nation, and they see China being a big part of it.

"Being able to speak Chinese will be a plus," adds Bill Trimble, 43.

And his eldest son has already got his eyes on the prize: "If you can speak Chinese; that is like a billion more clients, yeah?" asked Garrett with a grin.

Their teachers take their jobs very seriously and, amid the fun and joking that enliven lessons, there are midterm and final tests and plenty of homework. Coveted certificates await those who pass the class.

Chris Ma is the Sunrise principal who heads a staff of six who all fit in teaching around full-time jobs doing other things. Ma is a chemist with Archer Daniels Midland Co. and is thrilled to find people in Decatur who want to learn his native tongue and are willing to work hard to do it. He also sees language as a catalyst to wider understanding.

"Toward knowing Chinese history and culture," explained Ma, 42. "Language is the pathway to it, a way to explore. And if you have these language skills, you can also travel to China easily and live there, do anything."

Ma estimates that just giving their studies 30 minutes a day every week for one or two years would get students to the point where they could get off a plane in Beijing and survive on their own.

Victor Mao, a 44-year-old business analyst at ADM, teaches adult classes and says the Mandarin Chinese being learned will always serve students well.

"We have 1.3 billion Chinese people but it doesn't matter where you go in China: north, east, south or west, if you speak Mandarin you can be understood," he added.

Catherine Ming Tu is an assistant professor of music at Millikin University in her day job and she teaches younger learners at the Sunrise School. She hopes the church-based language lessons might inspire some other schools — public, church-based, whatever — to set up Chinese language instruction and open up new possibilities for their students.

"For anybody in Decatur who has a vision or the idea of doing business with China, getting your kids trained could open up whole new windows for jobs, for economic opportunity," she said. "I hope some schools will be drawn to that, because there is just endless potential there."



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