My Confucius Family

By Monika Hoffarth-Zelloe

It all started years ago, when my six-year-old son, Alexander, announced that he was going to build a bridge to China with Lego blocks. Eight years later, he started to study Chinese in a Confucius Classroom at his Jesuit high school. Fate determined that I was going to become best friends with his Chinese teacher. I started to volunteer in the classroom and I soon found myself chaperoning forty-three high school kids on a two-week summer tour to China. This Hanban-sponsored trip, called the “Chinese Bridge Summer Camp for American High School Students,” was not only an eye-opener for me into an unknown world, but the kindling for my fire and passion for 中国 zhong guo and 中国人 zhong guo ren.

Never had I felt such a deep fascination, curiosity and eagerness to learn more about a country’s culture and history.

I had explored half the world prior to my first journey to China, but never had I felt such a deep fascination, curiosity, and eagerness to learn more about a country’s culture and history. Not only did I visit the highlights of Beijing, climb the Great Wall, observe the acrobats practicing for the Asian Olympics, wander around the Longman Caves, and attend an incredible outdoor musical performance in the mountains near Shaolin, but I also formed many friendships with my Chinese teachers during our stay at a provincial high school.

I then debated attending Chinese language classes at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University. After all, I was approaching half a century in age – the perfect time for my brain to entertain something totally new and challenging. From the roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today, I had only mastered six. Learning Mandarin Chinese, the most widely-spoken language in the world, seemed to make sense. Or was I too old for such a difficult task? I decided to give it a try, determined to 学习普通话 xuexi putonghua, and signed up for my first Chinese language class at “CIMason”. That was one of the best decisions I ever made. After seven years, I am still attending Chinese classes on Thursdays. I know every single teacher who has taught there since 2009 and last summer, during another visit to China for a high-level delegation of cultural educators from Washington, DC, and Virginia, I met all of my instructors again. That night’s reunion, when all my previous teachers came to greet us after arriving in Beijing, brought tears to my eyes and made me realize how fond I had become of my Chinese friends.

Once I joined the Confucius family, my daily life seemed to always involve China, the Chinese culture, or the Chinese language in some way. Every book I suggested to my book club, fiction or non-fiction, was set in Asia. I decorated my entrance-way with Chinese artifacts, listened to music from Chinese CDs that I had brought back from my trips, and pulled out my 旗袍 qipao for every fancy event that I attended. I also decided to intertwine my cultural work at the German Goethe-Institut with my new knowledge of China. I became part of the “Trialogue” project and a poetry event named “Time Shadows,” in which we presented poems in German, English and Chinese. I became a moderator at the Euro-Asia film festivals in Washington, DC, where I discussed German and Chinese short films together with my Confucius colleagues and friends. I was invited to Michelle Obama’s “100,000 Strong Initiative” talk, the 2012 National Chinese Language Conference in Washington, DC, cultural workshops to learn Chinese calligraphy and how to play mahjong, lessons on using “WeChat” to stay in touch with my Confucius friends, and even my teacher’s apartment to make 饺子 jiao zi.

However, these rich activities still left me yearning for something more. I decided to volunteer for CIMason. I joined the CI staff on “Chinese Culture Days” at local high schools, promoted CIMason in a video clip on their website, and participated in the “Traveling Trunk Chinese Artifact Kit Project.” I hosted several teachers at my house, attended memorable visits with Madame Xu Lin, former Director General of Hanban, and Madame Yan Junqi, helped to organize the “China in my Eyes” Photography Exhibitions in 2013, and, recently, curated the revival of the “China in my Eyes” exhibit in Alexandria, VA. As a supporter of CIMason, I found myself serving as the bridge connecting China and the USA, exposing Chinese culture to wide audiences, and teaching people the value other cultures can bring to their lives. I am the product of my son’s childhood wish to build a bridge to China.

After my second Chinese Bridge summer study trip to China in 2011, my whole family started to study Chinese. My daughter joined in on our family’s fascination with China and enrolled in Chinese classes at her local high school and again in college. Following Confucius’ motto, “Never be tired of learning or teaching others,” I convinced my husband to join us and take Chinese lessons and take a Chinese business class at CIMason. A few weeks later, reporters from Xinhua/New China News Agency requested a family interview to talk about our family’s unusual passion and interest for the Chinese language and culture. Shortly afterwards, our son embarked on another journey to China on a scholarship from George Mason University. He has now been to Asia seven times and he has declared China his favorite destination.

My dream to enjoy a symphony of cultures, while promoting and celebrating cultural diversity, has been fulfilled.

As you can see, our story is a story of chain reactions. None of this would have ever happened had it not been for the opening of a Confucius Classroom at Gonzaga High School. This triggered one event after another. Each of us became an active participant in the complex world of cultural diplomacy. As the U.S. Ambassador to Russia said, “Culture does things that traditional diplomacy can’t.” My academic background of cultural studies and foreign languages allowed me to participate in many cultural exchange programs where I learned the value in promoting cross-cultural understanding and dispelling stereotypes. My dream to enjoy a symphony of cultures, while promoting and celebrating cultural diversity, has been fulfilled through this connection with my Confucius family. It has been exactly eight years since our two worlds began to merge. Since 8, or 八ba, is a lucky number in the Chinese culture, I conclude my eight years of study is a good sign that I will be fortunate in the future and have many more opportunities to traverse the “bridge” of my son’s dream. My bridge was not built by Legos but with the love of our CI family, my work as a private American and German cultural ambassador, and the time I gave to contribute to the Confucius Institute’s mission of promoting cultural understanding and building pivotal friendships.

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