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'Coincidence' crosses cultures

Ashland High School junior Emma Cobb never thought about going to Beijing this summer. After all, she has been studying Spanish since the seventh grade. But because of what she calls a "coincidence," she and 23 other local students are going on a two-week trip mostly paid for by the People's Republic of China.

The coincidence happened a few years ago when Nick Phillips — the son of Frank Phillips, who is the head of St. Mary's School in Medford — met and married Xia Yun, the daughter of the president of Zhengzhou University in Central China's Henan Province. From that relationship sprang a language program in which 800 Rogue Valley students a year are now receiving free instructions on how to speak Mandarin by nine teachers who moved here from China.

Teachers, textbooks and funding for the Confucius Institutes, at the university level, and Confucius Classrooms, for K-12 level, are paid for by the Chinese government. There are now more than 900 of the programs in 80 nations, but the most coveted positions are in the U.S., according to program officials.

The first Confucius Classroom in North or South America started in Medford, thanks to Frank Phillips and other supporters.

In 2005, one professor from Zhengzhou University came to teach at St. Mary's School. In 2007, the private school and the Chinese university applied to the Chinese Ministry of Education to become a Confucius Classroom.

They were approved in 2008 and more teachers arrived from China to instruct students such as Emma Cobb, who is interested in studying linguistics and the way people connect through language.

"It's amazing that our little state has been the forerunner for teaching Mandarin in America," says the 17-year-old Ashland resident, who is in her second year of studying Chinese at AHS and will be in China the last two weeks of July with students from her school and Crater High in Central Point. "Because of a coincidence, I'm having this opportunity to branch out."

Frank Phillips says St. Mary's students have gone on the trip, called the China Summer Bridge program, for three years, "including the infamous quarantine trip of 2009," he adds, in which students were quarantined twice because one tested positive for the H1N1 virus (swine flu).

Students pay for their airfare and visas, but the government provides lodging, meals, transportation and guides.

"Quite a large number of students, teachers and administrators from Southern Oregon have visited China due to this relationship," Phillips says.

The Confucius programs have popped up in the national news with people concerned that the teachers are sent to the U.S. to spread propaganda, spy or indoctrinate American children in communism.

"If you Google around, you will see a lot of articles about China using these Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms to project 'soft power' into strategic countries," says Phillips. "I have not seen any of that, just goodwill gestures and many students learning Mandarin, a very useful language in today's world."

The teachers from the Henan Province receive three months of training but nothing prepares them for the culture shock of moving to small-town USA from China's most densely populated province, where 100 million people live in an area about two-thirds the size of Oregon.

On Sunday morning, three of the teachers — Qi Jing ("Chelsea," as she likes to be called), Zhang Yuanyi ("Claudia") and Guo Xuan ("Jen") — were at the Rogue Valley Roasting Co. in Ashland, talking about preparing their final tests, attending graduation parties and how their lives have changed while teaching full time and living in Southern Oregon University housing for two years.

Qi, 26, has learned to drive. Zhang, 24, has adopted a less formal fashion style, and Guo, 27, has become engaged. When she marries Xu Chen on July 14, one of her Ashland High School students will be a witness.

Before the trio arrived here, they half-jokingly thought Oregon was the Wild West and they might see "cool" cowboys. Today, they say they are grateful for the open spaces — "Oregon is beautiful," says Guo — and they really like campfire parties and s'mores.

In between sipping lattes and lots of giggles, they said they like that people here are healthy — "I thought a lot of Americans eat fast food, but Oregon is special. People eat organic and a lot of vegetables, what we call 'rabbit food,' " says Guo — and the students here show affection to their teachers.

Qi's students in the Central Point School District performed a special song for her. Guo's Ashland High School students leave the classroom by calling out, "I love you, Miss Jen," and Zhang's St. Mary's students, families and friends have taught the three to ski, bake and make speciality coffees.

"We love it," says Zhang. "We have so much fun. Our students sacrifice their fun time for us."

One of the first words students learn from the teachers is how to say the letters "A," "O" and "E" in Chinese. "If you say it all together, it means 'I'm hungry,'" says Zhang, laughing. "They remember that immediately."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com