Chinese teacher nearly done with his year at Willmar Senior High

WILLMAR -- A picture flashed on the screen and Bai Jinguo asked, "What is this." "Egg rolls," the students answered. Bai glanced around the room. "In Chinese," he said, with a hint of exasperation in his voice. The students laughed and answered a...

Bai Jinguo explains an assignment to Alex Grove Wednesday at Willmar High School. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- A picture flashed on the screen and Bai Jinguo asked, "What is this."

"Egg rolls," the students answered.

Bai glanced around the room. "In Chinese," he said, with a hint of exasperation in his voice.

The students laughed and answered again.

A few minutes later, they took a quiz, which Bai called an "opportunity," on the food and beverage names on a Chinese menu.


The Willmar Senior High students have just a few days left to spend with Bai before school is out and he returns to his job teaching English in Harbin, China. He leaves Willmar on June 15.

Bai has spent the school year in Willmar as part of the U.S. State Department's Teachers of Critical Languages Program. Willmar was one of 10 high schools in the nation to host a teacher from China this year.

Bai taught with Chinese instructor Todd Lynum, who has been at the school since 2007. Bai's position was fully funded by the State Department program.

Bai said this week that he will miss Willmar and the friends he has made, but he is looking forward to going home, too. He misses his parents and friends, and especially his wife. He came to the United States shortly before their first anniversary.

"I never expected this year to be so rewarding," he said. "This was an amazing year for me."

He enjoyed his opportunities to speak to church and community groups, and he found people in the area to have a keen interest in the rest of the world.

"People here are very international; they think big," he said.

When he returns home, he said, he hopes to put together an exhibit for his school about his year here. He wants to tell his students about the food, the people and the scenery. He may even write a book about his year in a small American city.


"I would like to work as a bridge for people from both sides," he said.

The students in the Chinese 2 class praised both their teachers this week. Those who will be returning next year said they would miss Bai. Lynum said he will miss him, too.

The two have been able to teach together and to split up large classes, Lynum said. After the first few weeks of school, Bai had his own classroom.

Lynum said he thought it had been good for the students and good for him. It gave him a chance to observe someone else teach Chinese, which was helpful, he said.

The teachers are working to develop a partnership with Bai's school and Willmar Senior High. They said they hope to eventually have exchange programs and other contact between the schools.

Their teamwork extended beyond school, too. Bai was able to get his Minnesota driver's license last fall, after doing his student driving with Lynum.

Senior Jordan Severson of Willmar called Bai "by far the coolest Chinese dude ever."

Bai returned the compliment. "This group of kids, they are great," he said. He liked co-teaching with Lynum, too. "I think it's really a great way for the kids to learn."


With Lynum and Bai teaching together, Severson said, "We have the best of both worlds."

Bai was quick to pick up on their little jokes, the students said, and they liked to tease him.

"You can joke with him; he's so carefree," said Tracy Hillenbrand, a sophomore from Kandiyohi.

But the joking went a little too far one day, Severson said, and the normally jovial Bai lectured them about Chinese students and how well they behave.

"He brings the Chinese classroom to us," said Sara Banks, a senior from Willmar. "He tells us a lot about the culture."

In addition to learning the language, the students said they have learned how to act if they visit China. They know how to deal with Chinese money and what gestures are appropriate.

The students said they will remember him for the thousands of photographs he took during his stay, especially his habit of photographing his food before he ate. He told them he took 2,000 photos a week ago during a drive up the North Shore of Lake Superior. Bai's explanation: "It's my hobby."

Some of the students felt they might have helped Bai during the year.


"He taught us stuff, but we taught him stuff, too," said Kendra Jasso, a sophomore from Willmar. They could tell that his English improved.

"In the beginning, he'd have trouble thinking of words," Hillenbrand said. "Now he just carries on a normal conversation."

Jasso said she always enjoyed Chinese class, where they worked hard but had fun. "You never get out of Chinese class without laughing," she said. The class was sometimes the bright spot in a rough day, she added.

When he returns home, Bai said, he expects to go through a period of adjustment, as he did when he arrived here.

An orientation session for the visiting teachers last summer helped him make the adjustment, he said. He attended another workshop about the challenges of going back home earlier this month.

For one thing, people in China rarely hug, but the friendly, outgoing Bai has become used to it. "My friends will think I'm very strange," he said with a smile. "It's so nice to learn something different and experience the culture."

"I like it so much," he said of Willmar, which is so different from his city of 5 million people. Everyone was friendly to him here, he said. He will miss his landlady and host, Beverly Baseman, and his "amazing" colleagues in the school district.

Returning to his old job will be an adjustment, too. In China, classes are twice the size, they are very quiet, and teachers do a lot of lecturing, he said. He hopes to be able to change his classes a bit.


"I think I will have my language classroom much more fun," he said. He plans to use activities, including using games like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, to help his students work on their English skills.

"I think they will get more involved," he said. "They learn while they play."

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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