Chinese program at Glen Ridge HS has banner year

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GLEN RIDGE, NJ — The Chinese program at Glen Ridge High School has completed a year of accomplishments highlighted by a celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. A special recognition of the province of Fujian was held in a gym on Friday, May 21, and the entire school was invited.

According to Shihong Zhang, who established the Chinese program and teaches both Chinese and geometry, Fujian, located along the southeast coast of China, is special in China. She said America is home to many Fujians because, living on the coast, it was much easier for them to emigrate.

“They work very hard and share with each other,” Zhang said. “A lot of Chinese restaurants in America are owned by Fujians.”

The GRHS Chinese program has scheduled biennial trips to various destinations in China since 2016. But the 2020 trip, planned for Fujian, was canceled because of the pandemic. Consequently, local Fujians were enlisted and came to the borough last week to serve traditional snacks, including sweet rice cakes, candied hawthorn fruit, preserved olives and candied plums. One Fujian attendee was Fujian Students and Scholars Association of Greater New York co-Chairperson Jianmin Chen. She came from East Brunswick and explained that a moon cake is a confection with multiple functions, since it can be eaten on holidays and at weddings.

“I came from China 30 years ago,” she said. “I studied at Rutgers and stayed here. I love New Jersey. A lot of times, a moon cake is given as a gift cake. It is nuts, pork fat and fruit in dough.”

The event was sponsored by the Fujian Southeast Network, New Jersey Chinese Teachers Association and the Fujian Students and Scholars Association of Greater N.Y. Students assisting were members of the GRHS Asian American and Pacific Islander Club, the Chinese Honor Society, the Chinese Club and the Ping Pong Club.

Activities included a chopsticks competition, paper cutting, shuttlecock, large yo-yos and calligraphy. 

Zhang, who has been a district teacher since 2007, began the Chinese program in 2010.

“At first it was a high school elective,” she said. “Since 2013, it’s become one of the core languages from grades seven to 12. Parents wanted to know why Chinese couldn’t be taught starting in the seventh grade. I remember Superintendent Dirk Phillips asking me if I wanted to teach seventh grade because parents requested it.”

In March, Zhang received the Governor’s Educator of the Year Award.

“One person gets it,” she said of the prestigious honor.

Her students have also fared well this year. Mia Bressler, Isabella Goodman, Kira Walshe and Evan Rossi participated in the National Chinese Speech Contest; Rossi, a senior AP student, took second place, winning $150.

In another Chinese language competition, the inaugural Nationwide Song Lyric Writing Contest, the winners were GRHS students Goodman, Winne Lin, Levi Woolford and Sophia Mrozinski. They received $500. Zhang said the competition was the idea of University of Delaware music professor Xiang Gao, who is the chairperson of the New American International Culture Corp. 

The National Chinese Speech Association also gave the high school a certificate of appreciation for its entry in a Chinese talent show. 

Zhang said students from each grade in the GRHS Chinese program received some acclaim in these competitions. 

“There must be a reason that it didn’t get lost in history,” Zhang said of Chinese language and culture, which is more than 5,000 years old. “And in recent years, we’ve seen more and more Chinese people as our neighbors and coworkers. The globe is becoming more diverse, more East and West.

“Another reason is the economy,” she continued. “China is the second largest in the world. Chinese is good career development.”

She said she had two students, who began their Chinese language studies in 2013 and graduated in 2019, go on to college to major in Chinese. In 2020, she had a student who went to NYU in Shanghai. In 2021, she had another student who was accepted to study in Taiwan, though the pandemic prevented that. And in 2022, a student will be going to Duke University in China.

“We’re a small program, but a very strong program,” Zhang said. “Chinese really impacted these students’ lives.”