The Chinese American community of San Francisco recently honored veteran teacher Mei-ling Chan, who received a lifelong service award from the city government. Chan arrived in the U.S. at the age of 18 after her mother's marriage to a U.S. citizen, who later died suddenly of illness. Chan, who had been educated in English-language Hong Kong schools, soon set to work helping other newly arrived immigrants from China. She has taught new immigrants English in the same school for four decades.
She told RFA's Cantonese service about her life in America, helping new immigrants to find their feet:
When I was a kid, I saw a lot of injustice. There were servants in our house in Hong Kong, but I never treated them like servants. They were my aunties. I learned to cook from them and to do housework. I always felt compassion for people in poverty and wondered why no one would help them. I would get mad at the rich people for the way they made the poor suffer and then they wouldn't help them. I have had these thoughts from a very young age.
When [I arrived in the U.S.] I knew English, because I had gone to an English school. We were given a lot of trouble by the immigration department, so that our first six months were very uncertain. We were like refugees. My first job was teaching the new immigrants. I made up my mind that I would help them in future.
At first, my level of Chinese wasn't very good and I couldn't even use verbs and nouns properly. Later the students taught me, so they became my teachers. I was their teacher, too. We helped each other, so I learned a lot more Chinese.
That year, I just taught English spelling, which gave me a very good basis upon which to build, and I was able to develop a number of methods for teaching English to newly arrived immigrants. These methods were very well-suited to them. People have been finding them useful from primary school up to university, since 1971.
The kids [I taught] were all immigrants, and they lived a pretty unstable existence, particularly because their parents couldn't understand any English. They were very needy, so I was able to help these students by teaching them to read and to get used to life in America. I would often help out the parents privately if I heard there was something they needed. I am very happy to have had this opportunity. There are some families in which I have taught three generations.
The hardest thing for me has been how to use the very best methods to help people to get used to their surroundings in the space of a year, so as to go on and achieve success at other schools. A lot of the time we have to start with English letters. At the beginning, we spend a lot of time teaching them independence.
Some of them don't even have a basic level [of English] when they come into my class. I often challenge my students. I don't use traditional teaching techniques. I will tell them to ask me questions, and any questions I can't answer, they get points for. I encourage them.
I may be a teacher, but I still learn something new every day.
Reported by Li Li for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.