Dr. Lilly Cheng. Photo by Rosalynn Carmen

By Leonard Novarro

When I was in elementary school in the dark ages, going international was a matter of wandering from one Brooklyn neighborhood to another. Going from Bensonhurst, mostly Italian, to Brighton Beach, mostly Jewish, was a big deal.

Our grandchildren in San Diego, on the other hand, go global every day by traveling from one classroom to another at Winter Gardens Elementary campus, also home to Riverview International Academy for kindergarten and first grade, where they learn and speak Mandarin and where an international day is celebrating cultures from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America in song, dance, ethnic dress and not just playing Mahjong.

The Winters Garden/Riverview curriculum is one of immersion, a form of education in which everything in the classroom promotes Chinese culture and attitude, from notes on the bulletin board to discussion in class, homework after school and singing and recitation at assemblies. Math, sciences, physical education, and grammar are in Mandarin while student responses to teacher questions are predominantly in Chinese.

“I think Riverview has opportunities for children that most schools are unable to provide for children. So for students to be bilingual and bicultural – it’s a huge opportunity for them…for their own brains and for their own cognitive development, but also in their future to be more aware of the world around them,” says Brian Thurman, Riverview’s principal.

The one-woman dynamo who made this happen is world-renowned linguist and language scholar Dr. Lilly Cheng, who, with the financial help of the Chinese government, launched the third Confucius Institute in California in 2009 at San Diego State University. The first two were in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Today, Confucius Institutes, dedicated to the six arts of the famed first-century Chinese philosopher, are sprinkled throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Ten years ago, it was almost unheard of to hear Mandarin spoken except in Chinese circles. Soon after opening two modest offices on the SDSU campus, the institute launched seven classrooms. Today, there are Mandarin classrooms in 28 elementary and middle schools, with Chinese language students numbering almost 17,000.

In addition, the Confucius Institute’s annual Chinese New Year celebration in Balboa Park has become one of the largest on the West Coast.

“The small seed of an idea was planted and now its blossoming,” says Cheng, a sort of Johnny – or is it Jeanie ? – Appleseed of Chinese culture. And she’s not even Chinese. At least not from China. Dr. Cheng was born and raised in Taiwan, came to the United States in 1968 to study speech pathology and has since lectured on the topic throughout the world.

“We have about 6,000 languages in the world. Every one of them excites me,” Dr. Cheng, a professor of speech language pathology at SDSU, has said. While spreading the word about Chinese culture and language is not actually part of her job description, it is has been her undying mission.

“I started doing this long before the Confucius Institute. What I’m doing is what I’m doing. It’s my personal mission,” she said.

The news Six Arts Center at San Diego State University. Photo by Rosalynn Carmen

In a month, that mission will come to fruition with the opening of the Confucius Six Arts Center, devoted to the understanding of the Chinese culture and the teachings of the philosopher. The center, in a refurbished section on the first floor of SDSU’s Professional Studies and Fine Arts building and financed by donations from several sources, including the government of China, will be a hall for Chinese culture, featuring displays, calligraphy, art, videos, rotating exhibits and even Chinese tea ceremonies, which Dr. Cheng also masters.

“You will enter the building through here into a tea room,” she says. Then, pointing to a spot on an architectural rendering, she adds: “That is being built out as we speak, beneath a round dome and a square yard, representing heaven and earth. This is the yin and yang.”

The six art forms of Confucius will be taught or lectured about here: rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and mathematics. Archery and charioteering undoubtedly will be a challenge — but not daunting for Dr. Cheng.

The scholar was instrumental years ago in having the area between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, south of Market Street, declared the city’s historic Chinatown district. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when San Diego had its first Asian elected official — Tom Hom, who went from the City Council to the state Assembly and by the 1970s was developing the Gaslamp Quarter. Hom has remained a close friend of Dr. Cheng over the years and they both serve on the board of APAPA, the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association.

Dr. Cheng has satisfied the interest in Chinese culture by also organizing close to 70 trips to China for local government officials, business leaders, students, teachers and anyone interested. With some of the recent China bashing over trade policies – much of it from the current presidential administration — immersion couldn’t be more valuable. “Think global and act local,” Dr. Cheng, paraphrasing Earth Day founder David Brower, is fond of saying as she stresses the importance of honing an international perspective on life in general.

When she started the Confucius Institute, someone suggested that she begin introducing the concept to universities. Her reply was “It’s already there.” Instead, she said, “Go deep into the barren land…to cultivate the fields.”

By June, look for those fields to be flowering.

Leonard Novarro is co-founder of Asia Media America and the Asian Heritage Society. He is a frequent contributor to Times of San Diego.