A big part of what makes Holderness School so special are the teachers. This summer, we’re taking the time to get to know just a few of the amazing educators who call Holderness home.
Today, we’re meeting Jiabao Mei, the school’s Mandarin teacher. A native of Guangzhou, China, Jiabao just completed her first year of teaching at Holderness - and she's the first native Mandarin speaker to ever teach at the school. Here, we ask Jiabao about the challenges of learning a new language, the importance of understanding other cultures, and how she found a home in the Holderness community.
Hi Jiabao! Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m from Guangzhou, China. Before I came to Holderness I taught in China. I taught K-8, but after teaching high school kids, I found I really like to teach high school kids.
What is it that you like about teaching high schoolers?
I love the maturity of high school kids. Since they choose the language, that means they really want to learn it. They have great questions, and some questions I don’t even know [the answer]. It pushes me to learn it better, and then I can teach them. I love this.
What is it like to teach Mandarin to English speakers? Is it difficult to learn a completely new alphabet and writing system?
I think for them the Chinese language is like an alien language. I think it’s really fun to teach them how to learn the characters. To me the characters are like puzzles. You just put them together. It’s really interesting. As a native speaker I don’t really notice the difficulties in learning the characters or how they make sense, but teaching them it makes me realize there’s always a new way to interpret the characters.
Do you teach students about Chinese culture in your class?
Yes. I like cooking, and I brought food to my students last year. Some of them really liked it and some of them were like “no.” But I love the reactions. It just makes me think “Ok, they don’t like these, maybe I should try this.” I want them to know that there are so many different foods in China, and China is so big and the culture is different in different places. I try to introduce them to each so they will have a better understanding of China.
Why should a student take Mandarin instead of French, Spanish, or another language?
If they are interested in a totally different culture, I would recommend it. When I teach the language, I notice how much difference there is between the Western world and the Asian world. I speak Mandarin, Cantonese, and another dialect and I’m learning Korean. When I learn Korean, things just come to me like this [snaps fingers]. About 60 percent of the Korean language is from Chinese, so I can get it right away. And reading cultural things just comes to me so quickly. I totally understand that. But for the students, especially for native English speakers, it’s like “Why are Chinese people saying things in this way instead of this way?” It’s really interesting, and I think it opens their mind to say “Wow this is totally different” and think deeper. I think it helps them to think deeper and know more about the world.
Mandarin is becoming more and more popular in schools across the world. Why do you think that is?
Well I would say economies, since China is developing and a lot of businesses need to speak Chinese. So I think it’s important to learn Chinese, and especially if you’re in a business and you want to have a good relationship with Chinese companies, it’s better for them to speak some Chinese. When Chinese people see other people speaking Chinese, they will say “wow” and it connects both parties.
What do you like about teaching at Holderness? It must be a bit different from living and teaching in China.
When I first got here, I didn’t drive and it was really hard for me. I felt like I was stuck. It was in winter and you couldn’t go anywhere. But the community was super, super, super supportive. People would give me rides and they helped me to get stuff and Kristen Fischer [Dean of Faculty] - I love her - she’s very, very nice and kind. She taught me how to drive and is just so supportive. The community is not too big so everyone can get to know each other. So I love the connection inside the community – and the people, of course.