Faculty & Staff Profiles
Bonnie Wang began studying English as a 6-year-old in Changchun, a city of 3.4 million people in Jilin Province, an area of Northeast China that shares a border with North Korea. She spent 20 years in her hometown and grew up thinking she would teach English there.
But her world was turned upside down when she came to Portland State University for her last two years of college, and she has found her passion teaching Chinese language in America.
Leaving Changchun’s Northeast Normal University for an exchange program at an American university was Wang’s first time to be independent, to be away from home and family. China was more than a 12-hour flight away, and she had no idea how to operate a washing machine, how to cook, how to drive.
She was surprised to find that people outside China were thinking different things than she had been thinking in China. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were banned in China, replaced with substitute versions controlled by the government.
“The government was providing information they think you need to know, blocking the things they think you don’t need to know, shouldn’t know. It was shocking to me that the Taiwan student organization [at Portland State] was separate from the Chinese student organization. For 20 years I was being cheated by my government, and no one told me that truth.”
Life in the United States was vastly different than what Wang experienced in China.
“When I was little, we were really, really poor. You cannot imagine how poor we were, but at that time everyone was poor. We had just slightly recovered from the Cultural Revolution. … My parents wanted to quit their jobs at the government-owned factory and start a business. It was very risky because the government did not want to support that. But my parents had no choice because they had me. When I was little, I was very unhealthy and spent a lot of time in the hospital. It’s expensive to stay in the hospital, and they needed to find a way to raise me.”
Wang’s mother began selling fruit on the street, which was illegal because she was supposed to pay to sell in a market. She persisted on the street for two years, earning enough money to rent a rack where she sold children’s snacks. The crackers and candies were expensive, and after five years Wang’s mother made a proverbial “bucket of gold from the snacks business.” Her parents own two businesses now, one that makes packaging for medical companies and one that supports the Chinese petroleum business in Africa.
Because Wang’s parents were busy with work, she lived with her grandparents from age 3 until she was 18. “I hated my parents because they left me. Now I kind of understand that. They had no choice, no time to take care of me.” Her parents provided money for food, clothes and fun, and she has happy memories of childhood with her grandparents. China’s one-child policy meant Wang had no brothers or sisters, but her grandmother had nine siblings, so she had a large extended family and lots of cousins to play with.
Wang was majoring in psychology at Northeast Normal University when she decided to take advantage of that school’s American exchange program that would earn her a bachelor’s degree from both universities. She chose Portland State partly because of the weather — she wanted to get away from Changchun’s bitterly cold winters but was wary of adjusting to a hot climate — and fell in love with the city’s vibrant music and film scene.
“At Portland State I experienced a totally different culture from what I used to live emotionally, spiritually and economically. … I saw things that I couldn’t even imagine would happen.”
Wang saw people protesting for rights for the LGBTQ community and protesting for the Occupy movement. “This would never happen in China. If someone tried to do that, the government would find a way to shut it down or you would never see them again. … These were things representing freedom and their free will to talk, to fight with the government.”
The two years Wang spent in Portland completely changed her mindset. She had expected to come to the U.S. for her education, then go back and do something for her country.
“Now I’m still doing something for my country — I’m teaching the language — but in a different way. Physically I’m not in China anymore. … The things I’ve seen people doing, the thoughts they are trying to tell me, these are the things that keep me staying in America.”
Wang’s personal life also changed when she was at Portland State: She met her boyfriend there. A Korean, he was in the master’s program and accepted a position teaching Japanese at UNC-Charlotte. Wang earned her bachelor’s degree the following year and chose graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill both for its linguistics program and to be closer to her boyfriend. “We joked that just the two of us, we can start an East Asian department!”
Wang was a full-time student her first year in Chapel Hill, but in her second year she worked as a substitute teacher for nearly a month when a Chinese class’s teacher encountered a visa problem. The department got good feedback on her teaching, and she was offered a one-year position after earning her master’s degree.
“After that year, I was talking to one of my colleagues. I said I think I’ve found my passion and inspiration here at Chapel Hill, but I don’t know where I can go. She told me she had heard Durham Academy was looking for a Chinese teacher.”
Wang wasn’t familiar with Durham Academy, but when she arrived on campus for her interview she recognized the “DA” logo. One of her UNC students had graduated from Durham Academy, and she remembered him using paper with the DA logo to make flash cards. She felt good about her interview with Upper School Director Lee Hark and Foreign Language chair Edith Keene, and was impressed by what they told her about DA and the Chinese program.
“So I searched for Durham Academy [on the Internet] and found the [#IceIceSnowDay weather announcement] YouTube mix tape from Lee Hark and Mr. Ulku-Steiner, and I fell in love with it. These are the people I’m going to work with and I’m so ready!”
She came to DA in 2015, and taught Chinese 1, 2, 3, 4 and AP Chinese in this first year at the Upper School. Her DA classes are small — often just three or four students contrasted with a class of 25 at UNC — and she wants to see more DA students take Chinese. She has worked to bring Chinese culture to all of the Upper School, performing a tea ceremony for faculty, offering calligraphy instruction for students and bringing traditional dancers to campus.
Wang does not deny that Chinese language is difficult. “For English speakers, research has shown that Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic are the hardest to learn.”
But she thinks it’s important to take risks. “If you’re feeling comfortable, that’s not right. You should feel a little discomfort when you do anything. That means you’re making progress, you’re on the right track.”
And while the subject matter is challenging, she gives students lots of opportunities for extra credit. “If I can see you’re making a lot of effort, taking a risk, I’ll give you the opportunity to strive for an A.”
Durham Academy isn’t all that different from the high school Wang attended in China, though the school had 2,600 students in each grade level. “Everyone is trying to get to the top and go to their dream school.” In China, school is all academics. At DA, students are involved in academics, arts and athletics. “They are handling everything all at once, which is impressive.”
Wang has a full life apart from Durham Academy. She and her boyfriend like to hike and go to concerts and performances when they are together on weekends. She loves music, from classical to Nirvana, and is teaching herself to play the guitar. And she likes expressing her own style. “I like dressing up, I like make-up. I like the way I can be different, show my confidence. If I have only 20 minutes and have to choose between breakfast and doing my thing, I’ll choose doing my thing.”
She’s fiercely proud of being independent. “I had a part-time job in a lab at UNC, so I didn’t ask for money from my parents. They felt fragile at first, you don’t need us to support you anymore, you are our only daughter. … I’m independent, happy and productive.” She’s in the process of buying a house and recently learned that she is being granted a long-term visa by the U.S. government.
“Everything around me has been going so well since I got a job at Durham Academy: my visa, my house, my academic work. I’m going to two conferences to present papers in the next two months. Life couldn’t be better.
“I’ve made a lot of friends at DA. I love the students here, love teaching at DA, love talking to the smart and humorous colleagues around me.
“I think what DA has done for me, I will never pay back. I will start to do it right now, every day driving to school I think I will do more for Durham Academy. I will just pay them back more until the day when I feel this school is not a good place for me. I don’t think that day will come.”