Too old to learn Chinese?

UCLA grad student Shuwana Farmer discusses her experiences returning to college and taking on the study of China.

I am researching my project on Asian American interracial marriages as well as investigating the African-American identity and adoption process in China.

We've asked students and faculty to share some of the reasons they're devoting much of their time and energy to learning more about Asia and to talk about some of the experiences they've had in the process. Our first such account is from Shuwana Farmer, a UCLA graduate student pursuing dual masters degrees in East Asian Studies and Asian American Studies. She sent this to us from Beijing, China.

“Who says you're too old to learn?”

by Shu Farmer

In 1998, I made the decision to return to school for an advance degree after being out of school for nearly 10 years. I wanted to pursue a lifelong dream: A career as a college professor. I was 30 years old with only a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Speech Communications. I was a little hesitant to go back to school for several reasons. I had often been told that I would never amount to anything. I was also told that I was too old to go back to college. But perhaps most hurtful was the implication that people of color were considered undesirable choices for professorship. Yet I decided to throw caution to the wind. Besides, I was getting too old to wait any longer!

I began my journey at Pasadena City College studying Chinese for one year and Japanese for two years. I enrolled in history courses related to China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Korea and Asia Pacific Americans. I also took Asian American Studies courses in the history, sociology and psychology departments. Those few years at PCC led me to two people who were instrumental to my decision for graduate education: Glenn Omatsu, Professor of Sociology, and Dr. Juliana Hazlette, professor of History and Social Sciences. It was these two people who encouraged me to go that extra mile and to seek my degrees at UCLA. I had decided to continue my studies in the Chinese language because I was fascinated with China's long rich history and cultures.

In 1999, I enrolled in two Chinese language courses (Chinese 4A and 5A) at UCLA as a concurrent student through UCLA Extension, and by Fall 2000, when I began my Masters Program at UCLA, I had already been exposed to the program in East Asian Languages and Cultures as well as the campus life at UCLA.

Studying Chinese has opened doors that I would have never imagined. It has led me to China as well as assisted me in garnering several jobs that required the use of the language on the job. In the Fall 2000 I was the recipient of the Graduate Opportunity Fellowship Program (GOFP). In addition, I was the recipient of the National Resource Fellowship for East Asia (FLAS Title VI) for the summer of 2001, which gave me the opportunity to study in Beijing, China for three months as part of the UCLA Education Abroad Program (EAP).

While at Beijing Normal University, I had the chance to use the Chinese language on a daily basis. I realized the best method for mastering a foreign language was to go abroad and to live in that country. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in China. It fueled my desire to further pursue my language studies and training. When I returned to the UCLA in the Fall 2001 I continued to take courses in Chinese in the East Asian Languages and Cultures department. I was also awarded that same year the Fishbaugh Scholarship and the Adopt-a-Scholar Award from the UCLA Affiliates.

Among other things, pursuing the Chinese language has helped me to be a more productive Teaching Assistant in the Asian American Studies department. I was able to use my experience abroad in China and my previous studies and relate it to the class that I was teaching in the Spring 2002. Many of my students appreciated the fact that I wasn't Asian American or Chinese but yet had a strong grasp of Asian and Asian American culture and history. Being able to speak Chinese didn't hurt either, as it added to my credibility and made the students more comfortable.

During the summer of 2002 I was hired as a ESL Teacher at the Chiao Hsin Chinese Language School, in Monterey Park as part of their articulated summer program to teach English to Pre-K, 1st grade and 2nd graders. The goal of the summer program was to improve the students' speaking, writing, listening and reading skills in English. I felt at home with the students who rarely got a chance to practice their English unless it was in school because a majority of them come from a Chinese speaking home. I understood how hard it was to learn a second language, because it has been very difficult for me to learn Chinese in an environment where English was the dominant language. There were a handful of students who didn't understand English at all, therefore I was able to use my Chinese skills and serve as a translator for the more difficult assignments. The students were wonderful to work with and were quick to learn. The principal of the school has asked me to return for the following year to continue teaching in their program.

Furthermore, I took part in “Upward Bound”during the summer before I left for China. It was a one-week college training program held at UCLA for high school students from Riverside, California. The program was sponsored by Riverside Community College and was designed to give disadvantaged high schools the opportunity to see first-hand what college is like. The students lived on campus and took courses in science, language and math. I was hired as a Chinese instructor and for one week, I taught a brief introduction course in Chinese language, history and culture. Many of these students have had to overcome a lot of obstacles in their lives and some of them had the idea that college was probably out of their reach. But I'm glad I was able to be an example to them, as my background is somewhat similar to theirs. For if I can learn Chinese and achieve what I have at this age and in such a short period of time, then anything is absolutely possible!

Fall 2002 marks the beginning of my fourth year of studying Chinese. I am once again studying in Beijing, China in the Education Abroad Program – this time for a whole year, until the end of Summer 2003. I am continuing to take intensive Chinese language courses at both Beijing Normal University and Peking University. At the same time, I am researching my project on Asian American interracial marriages as well as investigating the African-American identity and adoption process in China. I am also employed as a supervisor of the English Teaching Program at the Beijing Normal University Kindergarten School, the most famous and prestigious Kindergarten school in China. I oversee two schools and manage a staff of 20 English teachers, who are EAP students from the UC campuses. These UC-EAP students are great to work with and are more than willing to give up their time to teach children. Some of the UC-EAP students have never had any teaching experience and are delighted to have the chance to learn how to teach English as a second language. My goal as the supervisor is to serve the needs of the Kindergarten Schools, create a fun learning environment for the children, and to establish the EAP English Program as attractive part-time employment for EAP students who are thinking of careers in Education, English, Journalism, Law and Ethnic Studies.

I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to study at UCLA as a double major graduate student in Asian American Studies and East Asian Studies. I am also very thankful for the continued support from UCLA, EAP and Graduate Division's financial support in the form of fellowships and scholarship awards. I have received the Chancellor Appointment for Academic Excellence and Student Leadership in consecutive academic years (2000-01 and 2001-02). I believe that if you set your mind to it, work hard and don't give up, you can achieve your dreams. You're never too old to learn. Trust me!

Published: Saturday, November 30, 2002