May 30, 2007


In Queens, Classes in Mandarin Are Also Lessons in Adaptation (ELLEN BARRY, 5/29/07, NY Times)

[M]an-Li Kuo Lin’s weekly Mandarin class — arranged by Ms. Harrison’s successor, Councilman John C. Liu — provides a different view of Flushing. Ms. Lin’s students filter in after finishing a day’s work as paramedics or elementary school teachers. They set up chairs under pipes labeled “hot kitchen/bath” and “chilled water supply,” which are periodically traversed by mice. Some eat supper discreetly out of paper bags. Then they stumble, with boisterous good humor, over the basics of Mandarin grammar.

In the center of the front row, every Wednesday, sits an old man with a freckled scalp and a frizz of white hair. This is Frank Sygal, 85, a retired stockbroker whose enthusiasm in pursuit of Mandarin amazes and amuses his classmates.

His first question of the night during one recent class, delivered in the accent of his native Poland, was followed rapidly by several dozen follow-ups: “Why do you say two words for ‘bladder’? I have one bladder! For one bladder it’s two words? What is word for state of Israel? What is word for ‘oral surgeon’? If I go to study medicine in China, what do they teach me?”

“Nobody taught you in Poland to speak Chinese,” Mr. Sygal said.

Mr. Sygal grew up outside Krakow and lost his parents on an August day in 1942 when German soldiers rounded up Jews, stripped off their jewelry and machine-gunned them. His facility with languages helped him survive: He spoke Russian with the Russian soldiers, Ukrainian with the Ukrainians and German with the Germans, reserving Hebrew for private spaces. Once he arrived in New York in 1949, there were two more languages to learn — English and Spanish.

Now, at 85, he has embarked on his last great linguistic effort. His progress has been maddeningly slow; at one point, Mr. Sygal approached “dozens” of Chinese people, he said, in a fruitless attempt to translate the word “ka-ching,” a term he had seen in a headline in The New York Post and assumed to be Chinese. He hopes that he will be able to carry on a conversation in Mandarin by the time he is 95.

“If I be around,” he said, “I be able to speak.”

To his left was Cathy Stenger, driven to this class by the stubborn silence in her building’s elevator. She bought an apartment in a Flushing co-op in 1986 and has since seen 90 percent of the units go to Korean and Chinese families. She has a mute bond with a woman from the sixth floor, who embraces her every time they meet, and with an elderly man who soulfully grabs her hand.

“The fact of the matter is, I can’t talk to them,” said Ms. Stenger, 65, whose parents immigrated from Hungary.

Her interest is not casual. Her co-op board is threatened by a breakaway group of Asian tenants, she said, who are challenging bylaws about subletting or dividing units. A downstairs neighbor manufactures medicinal herbs, and though the woman added ventilation after Ms. Stenger complained, the scent sometimes wafts up through her radiator connections. And when gas leaked into a hallway recently, Ms. Stenger said, one of the neighbors hesitated to call 911 because she was afraid that she would be charged for the service.

Still, none of the changes have made her consider leaving Flushing.

“A lot of my friends it bothers,” she said. “My friends moved.”

The Mandarin classes, now in their second 10-week session, were the brainchild of Donald Henton, 73, a retired city bus driver who has lived in Flushing since 1968.

Mr. Henton asked Councilman Liu to sponsor the lessons last year during a community meeting at which most of the comments were made in Mandarin. He feels a responsibility for the classes’ success; on Tuesday nights, he calls 40 people just to remind them to come.

There have been moments of disappointment for Mr. Henton, who expected the classes to be standing-room-only. He has met cold shoulders among his own neighbors in the Bland Houses, where 78 percent of the tenants are black or Hispanic. On a sunny afternoon in the housing project’s courtyard, Robert Winston, whose family moved to New York from Jamaica, responded to the idea of studying Mandarin with a long belly laugh. Anita Garcia, whose parents moved from Puerto Rico, practically spat.

“I was born here,” said Ms. Garcia, who is 44. “Why should I learn their language?”

"Why can't I be the last one into the lifeboat?"

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 30, 2007 12:00 AM

Funny that this post come right after the previous one.

It is clear that many in our corporate class join the public schools in a attempt to import and impose the Chinese Cultural Model.

Humanist, collectivist, Confucian (do as your told), and ultimately - fascist.

Posted by: Bruno at May 30, 2007 8:34 AM

Come on, surely your wounderfulness picked up the point about Anita Garcia holding that immigrants learn English.

Nothing wrong with studying languages, even a dying tongue like German. We do want our immigrants, or at least their children, to begin to think in English as soon as possible. Lauguage is an important component of folkdom*.
*See what studying German get you!

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 30, 2007 10:33 AM

How can anyone read this and not love Mr. Sygal?

Posted by: Mike Morley at May 30, 2007 11:36 AM

Of course, if we move some people from Bland Houses into Flushing co-ops and vice versa then everybody will have to learn English.

On the other hand, humans aren't chess pieces...

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at May 30, 2007 1:19 PM

Sometimes Bruno, a cigar is just a cigar.

Smart people taking Chinese to get along with other people. No facism emerging.

Posted by: Bob at May 30, 2007 3:26 PM

I am expecting Anita Garcia to start the Flushing chapter of the "Minutemen" any day now.

Posted by: Bob at May 30, 2007 3:33 PM

The Minutomen: because someone has to defend the culture against those leprous Chinamen....

Posted by: oj at May 30, 2007 7:24 PM