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College offers Chinese course

Mt. Hood also offers taste of Chinese culture

In June 1989, Rachel Coleman had just graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder with a bachelor's degree in Asian studies. Yet the last place she wanted to be was China.

That's because the government had just massacred hundreds of demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

However, two years later, she was teaching English at Sichuan University in the same country she had sworn to avoid. As she poured her guest a cup of Chinese tea in her Gresham home, she says she changed her mind about traveling to China when she realized she didn't want to die someday without having taken some chances.

'If you have the worst time in your life, you can say you did this thing.'

In Sichuan, a western province, Coleman found a place dotted with Buddhist and Taoist temples and less affected by the upheavals, including the Cultural Revolution, that had decimated much of China in modern times. She taught there from 1991-93, and has traveled back, journeying through the mainland as well as Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan.

Now Coleman plans to share her knowledge of China through a new community education course in beginning Mandarin Chinese she'll teach Friday nights at Mt. Hood Community College. The course begins Friday, Jan. 11, and will run through Friday, March 14.

Coleman says she's designed the course for English-speakers with zero knowledge of Chinese, who might be befuddled by learning from a native Chinese. Unlike the related languages of Europe, Chinese has no in-built reference points for English-speakers, she says.

'It really is the difference between an eagle and a fish,' she says. 'Western language is a construction. It's a construction from words constructed from an alphabet. Chinese is a representational language. There is no alphabet. It's formed from pictures that represent life. It's much more flowing. It's much more obtuse.'

She says her course is designed to make East meet West.

'It's like a good guide taking you on a strange mountain tour,' she says. 'They know where you're going to have problems.'

Coleman is steeped in Chinese culture and has worked with Chinese organizations in both Boulder and Portland. Among her activities, she has participated in cross-cultural orientation programs with both American teachers going to China as well as U.S. couples adopting Chinese children.

Through it all, Coleman has developed a strong love for China that transcends her earlier image of an authoritarian place with a scary government. More so than in most countries, she says, China's people should not be confused with their government. The people are warm, friendly and thoughtful, she says, and generally devoid of the cynicism that marks people in places like the United States.

'The (Chinese) people are so incredibly genuine, almost innocent,' she says. 'They're warm and fun and almost a little raucous.'

To illustrate her point, she recalls how one of her students in Sichuan heard her remark she needed a cage for a hawk she had rescued. He then rode his bicycle for miles and ordered her a heavy bamboo cage at a small factory. He then traveled back the next day and picked up the newly made cage, which he carried on his back as he rode his bicycle to bring it to her.

'I didn't ask him, and he didn't tell me he was going to do that,' she says.

Coleman adds that she wants people to learn more about China as it becomes more important in the world. She notes the international spotlight being directed there as China prepares to host next summer's Olympic games. China is not merely an 'ominous looming superpower' nor is it 'a romantic land of flowing Mandarin robes,' she says.

'China is, in its own right, an extraordinary and enriching culture with all its own very real foibles,' she says.

Chinese for Beginners

To enroll in Mandarin Chinese for Beginners at Mt. Hood Community College, go to www.mhcc.edu, or call 503-491-7572. The course is offered from 7 to 9 p.m. Fridays from Jan. 11 through March 14. Cost is $62, including course book. Enrollment is limited.

For more information, e-mail Rachel Coleman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.