When Dönghui Zhang considers her good fortune as a visiting Chinese instructor at Bemidji State University, she first acknowledges a passion for education inspired by her grandmother who, at age 50, sold all her belongings so her youngest daughter, Zhang’s mother, could be educated as a medical doctor.
“Both my grandmother and my mom are great, strong personalities,” says Zhang who traces her academic success to the opportunities created by her grandmother’s bold sacrifices. “My grandmother was a widow and, much to the surprise of her neighbors, she made a far-reaching decision. She sold her home, becoming homeless, to support my mom in her university studies.”
Zhang’s parents in turn encouraged Zhang to excel in school, which she did, studying English and graduating at the top of her class at Liaoning University, Shenyang, China, in 1990. She has since taught English there for 17 years, as well as Chinese language and culture to international students. Fluent in English, she translates American novels and other books into Chinese and works with the British Council as an English examiner in China. She also enjoys cultural anthropology and hopes her work will help people of Chinese and American cultures better understand one another and build mutually beneficial relationships.
Influenced by her father, a university instructor of Chinese language, Zhang began studying English at age seven. She remembers loving the English sounds, which she found so different from her native Chinese. By the time she was 13, her dream was to study in the United States. She got her chance this year, although instead of studying, she is teaching Chinese on a nine-month assignment as part of an exchange program begun in 1988 between BSU and Liaoning University.
Each year since, Bemidji State has hosted a different Liaoning University language instructor. And each summer, BSU students have participated in Sinosummer, a month-long visit to China that includes two weeks at Liaoning University. In nearly 20 years, about 500 students have participated in the program.
At Bemidji State, Zhang teaches two courses a semester and takes various BSU courses. She also hosts a weekly Chinese discussion group and has drafted a story in English about three generations of women in her family starting with her grandmother.
Always motivated to find better ways to bridge Chinese and American cultures, Zhang thinks of her grandmother’s sacrifices, her parent’s loving support, and the officials from BSU and Liaoning University whose work has made her BSU experience possible. She has enjoyed studying and teaching in peaceful times, something that her grandmother and parents never experienced. Her grandmother – living through the Chinese civil war, China’s economic transition in the 1950s, and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 – raised four children alone while sometimes surviving on leaves and roots when food was scarce.
Born in 1968, Zhang lived with her grandmother as a young child while her parents worked and attended the government courses required in the Cultural Revolution. She says her parents’ careers suffered through the political upheaval, yet in that time she learned much from her grandmother and is determined to persevere through any hardship that she may face in her own life.
Coming from the large industrial city of Shenyang, she says that Bemidji is a place of great beauty, peace, and learning. Last year, when traveling in Tibet, she learned that Shangri-La is a paradise of the heart, an experience that she now equates with her time at Bemidji State.
“I recall the first day when I came to Bemidji, when I saw the beautiful nature, the clear lakes, and no pollution,” says Zhang. “For me, my Shangri-La is here in Bemidji.”