Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 6.11.2009

The China Connection
‘The students depend on the people’ 
Essay by David Atman

China and Eugene are connected in a thousand ways, from the Chinese and Chinese-American families who live and work among us to the food we eat, the art in our campus museum, even the air we breathe that carries over the Pacific. David Atman is more connected than most. He is married to a woman of Chinese descent, his child attends a Mandarin language program at the private Oak Hill School and he was at the Tiananmen Square demonstrations 20 years ago as a foreign correspondent, dodging bullets and tanks and sneaking out photos. He wrote a cover story about these events for the June 29, 1989, issue of EW, known then as What’s Happening, and since has written everything from business feasibility studies to a computer game about China. Today he’s a vocal advocate for recognizing the economic and cultural connections we have with China and doing something positive about it, particularly in education, economics and the environment.

Beijing Spring

Students in Oak Hill School’s Mandarin program: Anna Luria, Elin Schlichting Robinson, Malena Cary. Photo by Todd Cooper
This famous photo was on the roll of film taken by a student and delivered to AP by the author. Photo courtesy of AP
Teacher Sophie Wang.  Photo by Todd Cooper

So brave were the students and, soon after, nearly all segments of Chinese society in those heady days of May 1989. It was Beijing Spring; college students and countless others were in love. They proudly paraded their love around Tiananmen Square singing “The International and carrying hengfu, large banners that called for an end to pervasive corruption and impoverishing inflation. Journalists demanded: “We want to tell the truth; don’t make us lie!” Hengfu quoted Abraham Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people and for the people,” and swore “Give me liberty or give me death!” in English.

In the ancient capitol of Xian, hengfu declared, “I have a dream.” Demonstrations sprung up in over a hundred towns and cities throughout China.

Back in Beijing, the demonstrators held hunger strikes, entranced the world through foreign media, upstaged the first USSR-PRC summit since 1959 when Gorbachev met with Chinese leaders, saw martial law declared on what China’s government called the student movement’s “turmoil” and built a 30-foot tall “Goddess of Democracy.”

I’m Manhattanese by birth. This icon, a spiritual clone of the Statue of Liberty, inspired within me never-before-sung songs of deep kinship and celebration of freedom through democracy. Students positioned the “Goddess of Democracy,” which came to symbolize the student movement’s aspirations, facing Mao’s huge portrait at the head of Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world.

Great loves are forever. June first came in with International Children’s Day’s songs, laughter and youthful exuberance dominating the Square. On June 3 and 4, 1989, in Beijing, the world cruelly was reminded that great love involves great pain.

That June 4, my interpreter and I returned to my hotel and passed through its secret police just before 5 am. My camera stopped working that murderous night before — while I clicked away, a soldier smacked my head from behind, smashing my camera onto street concrete.

But a student entrusted his film to me to show to the world. So, over my hotel’s lobby rug stained with fresh protester blood, my interpreter and I set out cross-town on bicycles through the teeth of the dragon to deliver uncertain film to the Associated Press.

We switch-backed endlessly through Tiananmen Square’s radiating maze of ring roads, arterials and side streets for more than five hours. Helicopters eyed all from above. Bullets spat past us. We were turned back at many roadblocks. Patrolling tank columns forced us in the wrong direction. Burning buses, military vehicles and assorted debris obstructed streets. Sometimes we carried the bikes. Soldiers and plain-clothes police were everywhere. Gunfire whizzed by often enough eerily to seem like a rock opera refrain. Troops in Tiananmen Square lit a huge bonfire that smelled like death.

On June 4, the Chinese government’s propaganda machine furiously proclaimed a party line that, at first, no one had been killed; then, only brave PLA soldiers had been killed by “counterrevolutionary hooligans,” but no students had been killed; then …  on June 5, this AP photo (below) of crumpled bikes and bodies ran front page center above the fold in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The London Times and other papers around the world. AP staffers told me years ago that it’s been published “conservatively” thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of times worldwide.

Today, the Chinese government’s repression of the aspirations and true history of the Beijing Spring 1989 student movement continues. It does not trust its youth with the truth.

Around this 20th anniversary, an old man was beaten for honoring ousted General Secretary and reformer Zhao Ziyang; many “Tiananmen Mothers” (mothers of those who died or are unaccounted for from the brutal crackdown) were refused the right to mourn their dead children; Tiananmen Square protestors still languish in prison.


Our Own Deprivation

Today we live in a country where we don’t suffer the same severe deprivations of rights that too many citizens in the People’s Republic of China suffer everyday. Still, we and our children, here in Eugene, suffer at least one serious deprivation that China’s citizens and their children don’t suffer.

For decades now, China’s public school system has employed compulsory strategic second (and sometimes third) language education. Eugene’s 4J school district lags behind China, most of Asia, most of Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Ghana and too much of the world in foreign language learning. In China, the first generation of these graduates now are the Chinese leaders who have picked up the capitalist gauntlet and are beating us up with it.

As we face an ever more interwoven world, our current backwardness burdens our children with a decisive disadvantage. But support is broad for a Chinese immersion school.

Mandarin educators are united. Lead teacher Helen Liu of the summer and after-school [Mandarin] programs run through the UO’s Youth Enrichment Program, Principal Jen Jen Hwang-Shum of the Eugene Chinese School and headmaster Elliott Grey of Oak Hill School all support the creation of a Chinese immersion school.

The only accredited K-12 school offering Mandarin in Eugene is the private Oak Hill School’s program, where it will be taught in grades K-6 next year.

“In my opinion, the 4J resistance to a (Mandarin) immersion program is shortsighted,” Grey says. “I encourage people to consider Mandarin and encourage the community to continue to seek the public option as well.”

Educationally, the benefits of an immersion school are well established. Immersion students consistently out-perform monolingual students in math and English scores.

A Money-Maker for 4J

A Chinese immersion school is also financially attractive. The Survey of the Feasibility of a Chinese Immersion School in District 4J requested by 4J says, “31 percent of interested parents lived outside District 4J.” More potential immersion students would come from home schoolers and from private schools. Each new student brings in about $6,164 (2008-2009) in funding, says 4J’s financial analysis manager Caroline Passerotti. New enrollment would help offset the district’s long-term declining enrollment.

A Chinese immersion school also can bring in funds some other immersion programs can’t. The Center of Applied Second Language Studies at the UO conducted the survey for 4J. Director Carl Falsgraf has successfully written many second language and immersion grants, and he estimates the potential FLAP (Foreign Language Assistance Program) grant for a Chinese immersion school “averaging $200,000” per year.

Mayor Kitty Piercy is “a big supporter” of a Chinese immersion school: “It’s a natural.” When asked if any potential financial benefits for Eugene come from a Chinese immersion school, she said, “I certainly know as mayor that we already have interest from China in solar facilities here. We haven’t landed that. But we do have interest from several groups on that.”

A Chinese immersion school could help land those and other green jobs for Eugeneans, provide improved education, and enable a higher quality of life. It would also help Lane County compete against and sell to China. The market for green technology in China is in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

A Chinese immersion school in Eugene also serves public equity in many more ways than the lack of one does. An immersion school:

• Would provide better educational results and help Eugene catch up with the rest of the world from our current strategic foreign language competitive disadvantage.

• Would provide public student access to the current private-only student access to the most spoken language on earth and offer multiple economic advantages from teaching, speaking and knowing the most spoken language on Earth.

• Is not a call for an alternative school but for what Superintendent George Russell calls a “neighborhood hybrid.” It would provide neighborhood kids with guaranteed admission. If there was still space, kids from other areas would enter through a lottery.

• Would help make 4J a more financially stable school district, thus enabling multiple equity, economic and educational needs. Immersion schools have a higher level of minority participation and the 4J survey suggests a healthy degree of socio-economic as well as ethnic balance.

• Would provide greater national security and economic collaboration in a multilingual world and help heal Oregon’s mixed historical treatment of this “model minority.”

• Would likely become a feeder school of students for whom immersion is not appropriate to another nearby neighborhood school.

• Would provide an immersion school for the only high school region in Eugene that currently lacks one (Churchill).


A longstanding vision

Plus it’s been in the works for about 30 years. “I was there in the initial planning stages,” says Anselmo Villanueva, who worked with Dwayne Adcock, a central office administrator who focused on curriculum in the 1970s. “His vision was to have immersion programs in each of the four regions. The fourth and last region was the Churchill Region — he wanted either Mandarin or German. Unfortunately, he retired before the ‘complete plan’ was realized.” 

 “I view it as finishing a program,” Villanueva says, “not starting a new one.”

Since Chinese immersion was first proposed 30 years ago, how many hundreds, perhaps thousands of potential Eugene Mandarin speakers never became Mandarin speakers? How many will not be able to translate and interpret, do business on equal terms nor help balance our staggering trade deficit with China? How many won’t help Americans enjoy and benefit from a 4,000-plus year old culture, won’t protect American intellectual property and patent rights, won’t persuade China’s citizens both in and out of their government about the benefits of democracy and the rule of law, won’t conduct peacekeeping diplomacy with China and won’t foster trust between two mutually distrusting countries that must cooperate as well as compete for the good of all humankind?


Resistance to change

In my role as questioner of the predominant paradigm, I’m finding fewer and fewer reasons not to believe that Communist China’s reputation and Chinese ethnicity itself are factors in this 30-year hold-up. Some have told me that the problem is fear of the unknown, fear of change, parochialism, xenophobia. Others quietly call it racism.

Piercy says, “I see how we’re maturing and growing and becoming a better place because we have a growing amount of diversity in our community.”

Still, 30-plus years is a long time to wait.

“The adults are doing what is most convenient for themselves, not what is best for the kids,” says Kay Shaver, a member of the Advocates for Chinese Immersion Education (ACIE). Her Chinese daughter Emily would have gone to a Chinese immersion school.

No principal and no school have stood up to ask for a Chinese immersion program, but “I do think it’s a good idea and should be the next immersion language offered,” Superintendent Russell says.

McCornack Elementary Principal Tasha Katsuda says the staff vote not to proceed with a Mandarin Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) program “did catch me a little off guard.” But, she says, a “strong majority of the staff” is enough in favor of and passionate about the FLES program to “set up a committee to continue writing up the [next year’s] grant proposal and getting more specific.”

Eugene’s newly elected 4J School Board directors could help bring change to this issue. Director-elect Anne Marie Levis says, “I am a huge supporter of immersion schools.” She believes “there is an gap right now in the Churchill region” and was unsure if finances will affect a Chinese immersion school.

Director-elect Jennifer Geller is unsure about the quality of the immersion research, is more tepid in her support of Chinese immersion and says, “We may be struggling to retain programs for quite some time, rather than implementing new ones.“

“The district is in a political stalemate that is preventing it from delivering the most economical and highest quality global instruction to students,” Falsgraf says.

One poster during the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations read, “The students depend on the people.” 

David Atman lives and writes in Eugene. A member of the Advocates for Chinese Immersion Education, he is the father of an Oak Hill School student who is too old to be eligible for a 4J Chinese immersion school start-up. He can be contacted at davidatman at comcast dot net