Kneeling beside Helena Roberts as she practiced writing some of the 40,000 characters of the Chinese language, teacher Jin-ping Yang patiently explained to the University High School senior that she needed to hold her calligraphy brush upright to create the correct brush strokes.
"I was kind of worried when I signed up for this class because everybody said Chinese was a hard language to learn," Helena said during an interview later at the Irvine high school. "Sure, I've got to pay a lot more attention to it than my other courses, but I really like Chinese. And it's nice having someone in the class who's really from China, like Mr. Yang."
Yang is one of 28 teachers from the People's Republic of China who are teaching this semester at U.S. high schools under a unique exchange program sponsored by International/Intercultural Programs, formerly known as the American Field Service.)
"There are now 10,000 people from the People's Republic (of China) studying at U.S. universities, and this is the only program where Chinese citizens are actually living with host American families," said Lynn Sanborne, public-information director for the sponsoring organization, in a telephone interview from its New York City headquarters.
The Visiting Teachers Program enables teachers from foreign countries to enrich their skills by observing American methods of teaching, according to local AFS representative Cindi Fischer, of Irvine. She said University High is the only high school in Orange County where Chinese is taught, and the only one with a teacher from mainland China on its staff.
Lives With Family
Yang, who is 22, is living in Irvine with Michael and Connie Cassady. His American host is owner of a neuropsychology and neurobiology consulting firm, and Connie Cassady teaches art at Costa Mesa's Estancia High School. Their daughter, Michaelann, is a senior at University High and their son, Christopher, is a senior at Stanford University.
"Jin-ping has been wonderful," Connie Cassady said during a recent interview in her Irvine home. "He's like a member of the family. He calls me Mom, and I think of him as my son. It'll be very hard to see him go."
To give Yang a sampling of American life, the Cassadys and their friends have taken him to an Indian reservation and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, to Lake Arrowhead, Disneyland and various sporting events at UCLA and UC Irvine.
"We stay away from politics and economics because none of us are very interested in them," said Cassady. She added that the closest they have come to such topics is in talking about how the two life styles are different because of the higher standard of living in the United States. "We're much more interested in individuals--in finding out how the American and Chinese people are different--or alike."
The Cassadys have made it clear to Yang that most Americans are not as affluent as Irvine residents. While driving through Corona one day, the Cassadys told Yang that many of that city's residents work in Orange County but live in Corona, in Riverside County, because they can't afford Orange County's high-priced housing. A Cassady family friend once took Yang on a tour of some of the poorer sections of Los Angeles.
"We try to tell Jin-ping that we are not the average American family," Cassady said.
Interjected Yang, "I've been looking for the average American family, but they all seem different."
A native of Shenxi province in central China, Yang is a 1983 graduate of the Xian Foreign Languages Institute, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English.
Yang was recommended for the exchange program by the principal of the Peking high school where he teaches English. His was one of an avalanche of applications reviewed by the Chinese Ministry of Education, and he was chosen after he scored well on English tests and passed health exams.
Seen as Lucky Break
"I was very excited when I was chosen," Yang said. "I felt I was very fortunate to be allowed to go abroad because it's not easy for a high school teacher to travel outside of China. Most instructors who're allowed to travel abroad teach at the university level."
Yang was assigned to University High because it is one of the few high schools in the country that teaches Chinese. The course was first offered on an experimental basis in the summer of 1983, according to Jennie Hu, the school's Chinese-language instructor and Yang's so-called "master teacher," who is shepherding him through the intricacies of American high school life.
University High now offers three years of Chinese, supported by a $40,000, four-year grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation of Morristown, N.J. University High students do unusually well on standardized tests, and 95% of them go on to college. It is the only school in California in the program, which involves 30 high schools throughout the nation, according to the Dodge Foundation.