During her three trips to China in the last three years, Juneau teacher Bridget Smith has discovered a simple way to engage her hosts: make eye contact and simply say "Ni hao" (hello).
"People are always eager to respond and try to communicate," Smith said. "In China, they love to interact with foreigners and they love to practice their English. They're just eager to get to know people from other parts of the world."
Smith, a Juneau resident since 1968, has visited China three times since 2002 to teach English. From February to July, she taught at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, a school for the future managers and practitioners of Chinese opera, a highly stylized and nationalistic art form.
Smith will share slides and stories from her trips during a one-hour talk from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Gold Town Nickelodeon, as part of the Juneau World Affairs Council's free Tuesday Night Travelogue series.
Smith had never been to China before 2002.
"It just sounded attractive to me, and then when I got there, I wondered why I hadn't been there before," Smith said. "It's such an exciting place. I think it's the most exciting place in the world.
"With the (Summer) Olympics in 2008 and the trade agreement that they're forging with countries all over the world, it just feels like it's a country on the move," she said. "And the people are eager to engage with foreigners, which is what makes it so much fun to go there."
Fun to visit, but hard to get around. Beijing's population is expected to surpass 15 million by the time China hosts the Olympics. In the meantime, the city is building feverishly to get ready. About 5,000 new sites must be complete by 2007, and the construction has cloaked the city in a thick layer of dust.
"As Westerners, we love to follow maps," Smith said. "It doesn't always work there.
"I had to carry a card with the name of my school in Chinese characters whenever I left the campus so that I could get back," she said. "Most young people under the age of 30 can speak some English, but it can be confusing to get around. Plus, its just not set up in the same way that we're set up. It's a different pattern of building. You get lost a lot."
Smith has taught English as a second language for the last eight years through Southeast Regional Resource Center. In 2002, she applied and was accepted to teach English to elementary and high school students at a summer school in Dalian, a port city in the northeast. The next summer, she brought 11 teachers from Juneau to teach at a school in Shenzhen.
Her stint with the academy came together through a friend of hers who teaches in Beijing.
The academy, one of eight established 55 years ago by Chinese leader Mao Zedong, was set up to preserve and promote Beijing opera (or jing ju), a highly stylized combination of storytelling, music, dance, song, martial arts and miscellaneous art and physical forms.
Smith taught in the 4-year-old International Cultural Communications program, training the future mangers, promoters and agents of the opera performers. She lived in an apartment on campus three minutes from her classroom.
"China is very proud of its culture, and it's very proud of its history," Smith said "It wants the world to know about it, and most Westerners know very little about Chinese arts and culture. There's a need for someone to negotiate, and for someone to be able to explain and interpret Chinese art to the rest of the world."
Smith was the only native English speaker among the school's language teachers. She taught oral English and English writing to about 100 students - freshmen, sophomores and juniors. All of her students had at least six years of English classes in elementary or high school, but most had been taught by Chinese instructors.
"I am an English as a second language teacher, so I speak slowly and distinctly," Smith said. "They have more difficulty with New York accents and Southern accents. They were very eager to engage with me and have a relationship with me. They taught me a great deal about their language, how to ride a bicycle in China, how to ride the bus, how to shop, how to bargain, how to use chopsticks appropriately. They taught me how to live in China."
In the evenings, Smith hosted an informal class called English Corner. It was a chance to practice English in a informal way.
"I just provided the security of not being laughed at, a safe atmosphere for practice and lots of activities that would allow them to speak English," Smith said.
Korry Keeker can be reached at email@example.com