Bridget Smith: Sharing Alaska with China

Posted: Friday, October 11, 2002

Bridget Smith traded potato salad, humpback whales and the card game Uno for feng shui, chopstick lessons and friendship over the summer.

An e-mail brought the Juneau resident to a massive, pastel-colored boarding school on the edge of the Yellow Sea. Her sister-in-law, a teacher in Micronesia, sent news of an English-language summer camp for Chinese students.

Smith applied to be a teacher, was accepted and soon found herself in sweltering July heat, surrounded by studious, upper-class Chinese teenagers. She was one of 12 American teachers who made the trip to the South Ocean School outside of Dalian, China, for the two-week camp.

"The boarding school is for 3-year-olds to 18-year-olds, but this summer camp was only for children 12 to 18," she said. "Most of them came from the school, but some others came from other parts of China. Some came as far as 24 hours by train. This was considered a wonderful opportunity for Chinese kids."

Smith, 53, works for the South East Regional Resource Center as an adult-education instructor with the Even Start Family Learning Center at Gruening Park apartments in Juneau. Part of her job is to teach English as a second language, which left her in good stead for the volunteer job in China. Many of her students in Juneau come from Spanish-speaking countries.

"We brought all of the lesson plans," she said. "I brought one full suitcase of materials with me and one suitcase of clothing. (I had) maps, American flags, Mark Kelley calendar pictures, Eskimo yo-yos - just all kinds of things. We transformed the classroom into Alaska."

Juneau businesses, the Alaska Department of Education and the governor's office contributed pins, beads and materials about Alaska and the United States, she said.

Smith had 22 students ages 14 and 15 in her main language class. A Chinese co-teacher helped translate, explain the country's customs and maintain discipline. Because English lessons in China tend to emphasize reading and writing, Smith tried to focus on conversation skills.

"It was the usual things you teach, such as how to ask for directions, money. We did parts of the body," she said. "I taught them about Alaska, so they have a vocabulary that includes orca, eagle, humpback. I taught them about the Alaska Native groups and the history of Alaska and the geography of Alaska. They took notes all the time. They're just incredible learners."

Evenings were devoted to talent shows, student elections and other activities. Smith also taught the camp's 260 students how to play Uno. They caught on in about three minutes and really liked the game, she said.

While the English lessons were familiar, other aspects of job weren't. Students stood up to answer questions in class and attended half-hour sessions in the morning where they were prodded by loudspeaker to do their best. One giant sign at the school in English and Chinese advised teachers: "Put your heart into work. Teach with loving heart. Serve sincerely in teaching."

Smith doesn't speak Chinese, although she picked up words and phrases with the help of her students. The students also tutored her on the use of chopsticks. She shared a recipe for potato salad for an American dinner at the camp, although the lack of mayonnaise was a bit of a challenge, she said.

A 34-year resident of Juneau, Smith wrote the mystery novel "Death of an Alaskan Princess," which was made into the locally produced movie "Raven's Blood." She wrote a piece for the book "Our Alaska" about riding the state ferry.

People in Juneau have special gifts to bring to other parts of the world, she said, and her experience in China has brought enduring friendship. She hopes to return.

"Anytime you teach a language to another person, you're giving that person voice in that language. And giving voice to another person empowers them," she said. "You're enlarging their opportunity to operate successfully and independently in the world. Teaching (English as a second language) in China or here is very satisfying because it's a way of empowering people one by one."

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