During a routine Tuesday afternoon lesson at the Athens Chinese Culture Center, while some students watched a video on traditional Chinese culture dance, 11 year-old Alison Russ recited sentences and arranged magnetic Mandarin words on a board. Working to arrange the words just right, she translated, “I love my teacher.”
Shu-Qi Sue Chen, a native of Dalian, China founded the center in Southeast Ohio to bring the culture of China to Athens, but there is more to it than just the culture. The center is also about making friends and bringing students together by creating a family-like atmosphere.
“I think we’re trying to blend the discipline of the East with the fun of the West,” Chen’s business assistant, Amber Duff, says of the different teaching styles in the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Duff has two children learning Mandarin at the center.
It’s only fitting for the venture that started out of Chen’s home shortly after she moved to Athens in 1999 to join her husband, a long-time professor at Ohio University.
After many locations, the center is now operating out of Morrison Elementary School in Athens as part of a transition period.
Currently, nine children are regular students, meaning they spend two hours at least two days a week honing their skills and demonstrating their dedication to learning the language.
“It really is a family type of feeling every time you come here,” Duff says. “Lots of hugs and smiles and encouragement. We share food and holidays. Some really good friendships have been made here.”
In the past, as many as 30 students have been enrolled in the program. She and Duff say they hope to work back up to that goal as they settle into their new home.
Chen and her two teachers aim to move toward an immersion-style language school by introducing the language from the moment students walk through the door.
“A bilingual mind has a lot more advantages,” Liang Tao, an associate professor of linguistics at Ohio University, says. One of those advantages, Tao explains, is that students have an added appreciation for different cultures.
Chen says that learning Mandarin, which is one of the fastest growing languages in the world, can be useful, especially in job hunting abroad.
“We need American people going [to China] to teach English,” Chen says. Recently one of her students went to China in search of a teaching job.
The center doesn’t just teach children Mandarin. Chen also works with high-school students and adults by teaching them language, tai chi, calligraphy, cooking, and other aspects of Chinese culture.
“The Chinese culture is beautiful and there was obviously a market for people who wanted to learn the language,” Duff says.
International students at Ohio University have also utilized the center.
“Sometimes it can be very isolating to just be on campus and not know the language, so she wants to invite the students in so they can have a ‘home away from home,’” Duff says. “They get to learn the culture of Athens.”
Chen is passionate about her students both old and new, showing off pictures of past classes, plaques she and her students earned at festivals for participating in dance, and recent projects her students have made.
“I just like the children very much,” she says. “I want to share Chinese culture with many.”