East meets Eastside

Published 11:15 am Monday, September 16, 2013

Cutline: Zhaxi Nima teaches Chinese to fifth-grade students at Eastside Connections School in Niles Friday. Leader photo/CRAIG HAUPERT

Cutline: Zhaxi Nima teaches Chinese to fifth-grade students at Eastside Connections School in Niles Friday. Leader photo/CRAIG HAUPERT

The faces of Christine Lace’s fifth-grade students lit up when Zhaxi Nima entered the classroom for their twice-weekly Chinese language lesson Friday at Eastside Connections School in Niles.

Nima, 23, a native of the Pumi tribe in China, stood in front of the class and said hello. He then began pointing to objects and saying words in Chinese. The class repeated everything he said in unison.

Nima opened doors, turned off the lights, jumped in the air and then said the Chinese word for whatever he was doing, while the students repeated.

This went on for about 40 minutes in what was a typical lesson of Eastside’s unique Chinese language program.

“We looked at French and Spanish, but everyone has that,” said Principal Tammy Tallis-Crowner. “We really wanted to do something unique that would be very beneficial to our students. With Chinese being one of the fastest growing languages, we thought we would try that.”

Eastside’s Chinese program began this fall. Each class, kindergarten through seventh, gets a lesson twice a week for 20-45 minutes depending on the grade level. Crowner’s said she hopes the program is extended to Niles New Tech Entrepreneurial Academy by the time the seventh graders get to New Tech. All Eastside students have the option of joining New Tech.


A long way from home


Nima’s first name, Zhaxi, is pronounced “Josh-ee.”

He was born and raised among the Pumi tribe at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. Chinese is actually his third language. His first is Pumi and his second, Mosuo, the language spoken by his mother.

At school he learned Chinese and a little bit of English. He came to the United States in May of 2011 to study at Lake Michigan College, where he recently earned an associate’s degree in pre-engineering. His goal is to obtain a degree in agricultural engineering at Michigan State University and use it to better his family’s farm in China.

“We have a little bit of property, but we never grow things properly. The place where I live it is 60-70 years ago what happened here on a farm — so no machines or running water,” he said.

“My friends tell me, ‘don’t come back,’ because what they know of here is it is better to live. But I told them I am not like you guys. I want to go back to where I’m from. I miss it a lot. I miss my food and my (family).”

Nima is wary of taking out loans to pay for a higher education, so working at Eastside is a good way to save up for the engineering degree.

He also enjoys working with children, something he learned when he tutored younger kids in math and English back in China.

Crowner said he’s a natural fit.

“The students love him. It is really cool to see him interact with the kids in the hallway because they Chinese back and forth, even if it just the simple phrases like ‘hello’ or ‘good morning,’” Crowner said. “I’ve gotten numerous emails and phone calls from parents about how the kids are just loving it. They come home and sit down at the dinner table and are speaking Chinese to their parents and the parents have no idea what they are saying.”

Nima said he is enjoying teaching and learning about American students. He said the students at Eastside are far more open and creative than the kids at his school in China.

“They have creative thinking and creative behavior,” said Nima of his students. “This is a shock to me because a lot of kids in my village, the kids always were shy — they don’t speak very openly. The kids here, they have their own opinions and that is so great!”