New Chinese teacher feeling right at home

Less than a week into class, Xiangbo Zhang was already giving instructions to students in his Marietta High School classroom in Chinese.

Granted, not all of them were understanding those directions Thursday. But with the help of gestures, repetition and the occasional hint in English, they began to get the idea.

They’re already exceeding the expectations of Zhang, 26.

“They can even communicate with me, some students, in Chinese,” he said.

That’s because this is the second year Chinese language and culture classes have been offered at Marietta High and Marietta Middle School. The previous teacher returned to China, and Zhang has taken over this year as a visiting instructor under an arrangement between the school district and the Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters, an organization affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education. Hanban is covering $13,000 of Zhang’s $30,838 salary.

Zhang arrived in America for the first time in late July, but this isn’t the first time he’s taught his native language in a different culture. He spent the last three years teaching Chinese in Thailand.

“It is fantastic to get in touch with other cultures,” Zhang said. “I find maybe the distance between people (is) not in space; it’s in our minds. … I want to be one small branch between people.”

Senior Will Dixon said he appreciates the way Zhang interacts with students.

“I think he’s pretty cool,” he said.

On Thursday, Zhang was teaching the students to introduce themselves using their Chinese names. Rather than translate their given names, he asked the students to pick out words or phrases that he then showed them how to write and pronounce.

Freshman Olivia Payton chose “Tiger,” her sign in the Chinese zodiac. She said she’s long been interested in Japanese culture and took the class because she wanted to learn the differences between the two nation’s cultures.

Payton said she enjoyed the first few days of class but admitted there was some difficulty at first.

“It was so hard to understand what he was saying,” she said. “It’s gotten a lot better.”

After arriving in America, Zhang spent a week teaching Chinese at a camp at the University of California at Los Angeles. He initially felt some nervousness but found the Americans he met there friendly.

“So I know how nice it is,” he said.

When he arrived in Ohio, Marietta Superintendent Harry Fleming showed him around and helped him set up basic things like a bank account.

“He helped me a lot to settle down here,” Zhang said. “He’s a great gentleman.”

Introducing Zhang to the board of education Monday, high school Principal Bill Lee said he would be “dragging him down to the stadium” for Friday’s season-opening football game. But it doesn’t sound like Lee would have to do much dragging.

“I’m excited about it. Go Marietta!” Zhang said with a smile.

Zhang said he likes Marietta, noting that it reminds him of the town he grew up in in the Chinese province of Hunan.

“My hometown is similar, not a big city, just a small town near a river,” he said.

He’s still excited about the opportunity to teach here, but Zhang admitted there will be times when he misses home.

“I think homesick will come sooner or later, especially about the food,” he laughed.