In a few short weeks from now, on June 24, Pound Ridge resident Rita Kwan will be traveling to Washington, D.C. There, she’ll attend a day’s briefing and then, take a 15-hour flight with 14 others to Beijing.
Next, she’ll go to the campus of the Northeast Normal University in Changchun—a city in northeastern China, with a population nearly the size of Virginia—where she’ll spend six weeks brushing up on her knowledge of Mandarin (China’s official language), while she soaks up the local culture.
Kwan, 48, is one of the 25 finalists to have been selected from 17 states across the nation to take overseas trips to China, Egypt, and Russia as part of an educational program sponsored by the State Department.
The “Intensive Summer Language Institutes,” an initiative of the Washington, D.C.-based education non-profit American Councils for International Education, is aimed at enhancing the proficiency of school and college educators in foreign languages such as Chinese, Arabic, and Russian.
Kwan is a Chinese-American, born in China, where she spent her formative years till her early 20s, before emigrating to the U.S. in the early 1980s. She’s lived in Pound Ridge for the last 15 years. Despite being away from the land of her origin for over 25 years, she and her husband still communicate in their native language at home.
One wonders, hence, if this is a futile exercise. What’s the point of giving a crash-course in language training to someone already proficient in it?
The point is Kwan isn’t a native speaker of Mandarin. Though Mandarin may not be as intensely alien to her as, say, Swahili is to a Parisian, she didn’t grow up being educated in Mandarin, but speaking Cantonese—a major Chinese dialect spoken in the Guangdong province. She first came into contact with Mandarin in the U.S., while working as an assistant to a Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese lawyer.
The lives of certain individuals lie in the direct path of history, molded by the contours of momentous political events, social upheavals, and economic turmoil.
Kwan is one of them. Coming of age at a time when China was emerging out of the throes of the Cultural Revolution—the 10-year campaign launched in 1966 by the-then Chinese Community Party chair Mao Zedong—Kwan had to go work on a tea plantation right out of school.
“When I was about 17, I, like so many other people from the cities, had to go work on the farms. I worked for 10 to 12 hours a day for 30 days in a row. And every month, during the four to five days off I’d get, I’d go home to visit my parents in Guangzhou, a two-hour bus ride away,” Kwan said.
The years of the revolution were some of the worst in China. Factories were locked up. Urban teens between the ages of 16 and 19 were dispatched to the country to work with peasants. Government officials and intellectuals were exiled to the countryside. Valuable books were destroyed. College exams were suspended.
“The only way to get out of the farm was to study. If you didn’t pass the exam, you’d be there forever,” she said. Dog-tired from a hard day’s labor, she still set aside some energy to study by night in the primitive dormitory she lived in, sitting on a rickety bed, reading from a few outdated and tattered textbooks.
In 1977, when the government reinstated the examination system, Kwan was among the only two people on her plantation of about 1,000 youngsters, who cleared it.
That provided a dignified escape route out of the farm. Kwan enrolled in a technical school. With a diploma in civil engineering, she found a government job, a post much sought after for its prestige and pay.
Shortly thereafter, she began pursuing a degree in architecture and came away to the U.S. as a foreign student, with nothing but a few bags and amplitude of hope.
As is often the case with new immigrants, the lack of infrastructural support—a financial cushion and a language barrier, among others—is an impediment to achieving quick success.
Though her life improved dramatically here, it still wasn’t comfortable. A gig at a food factory here, a waitressing stint there, and a temp job as an office clerk somewhere, is what kept her going her first decade in America.
Kwan’s first great break came with the entry of her two daughters to the Fox Lane High School. While her own kids were going to school, she worked as a teacher’s assistant between 2000 and 2007. During that time, she also jump-started her own formal education.
“Since I couldn’t complete my undergraduate studies in China, I had to start from scratch here at the age of 43,” Kwan said.
She was still able to earn a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts within a short span of three years from the State University of New York at Purchase. Her next academic goal was to earn a master’s degree in education from Long Island University.
While working as a teacher’s aide at Fox Lane, five days a week, she moonlighted as a weekend teacher at the Northern Westchester Chinese School in Somers, teaching eighth and ninth graders.
“While my own children were learning Chinese, I was teaching Chinese to others,” Kwan said.
She’s now a certified, full-time Chinese teacher at the Grimes Elementary School in Mount Vernon, getting ready to fly to China on a cultural mission.