Capital Mandarin School Founder
Ma Laoshi, Capital Mandarin School Founder
Dear Ma Laoshi, to start off our interview, could you introduce yourself to the reader?
Yes, of course. My name is Sandy Ma, I am the director of Capital Mandarin School in Beijing. I am married and have two young kids of 3 and 9 years. I graduated from Capital Normal University majoring in Chinese literature & culture in 1995. Freshly graduated, I first taught Chinese at a primary school, and then I went abroad for two years, to teach Chinese to locals and expats in Singapore. After returning, I worked in a Chinese language institute in Beijing. In 2006 I founded my own School, for two main reasons : many foreign friends of mine wanted to learn Chinese and I wanted them to profit from my own more and more successful teaching methods. So, all in all, in 2014, I have more than 19 years of teaching experience and the motivation to go on for at least another twenty years.
Could you tell us some more about your Family (Husband & Kids)?
Well, my son is 3, he likes cars a lot, so he even created his own word for « vehicle » which is « wuwu ». So now we’ve all begun saying « bigwuwu », « tinywuwu » instead of che/车. He’s already started teaching us his Chinese (laughs). My daughter is 10, and she inherited an interest for Chinese too, because she likes to go to Calligraphy classes. Besides that, she also enjoys playing Chess in an international club and as a sport she prefers dancing. My Husband and I have been married since 2003, living happily in Sanlitun, and, from time to time, at Gaobeidian Campus.
What does your Husband think about your project?
Well my husband has a hobby : he likes tea very much, especially Pu’er tea. He keeps saying « the Pu’er tea, when you drink it, you first feel that it’s a little bitter, and later on you feel the sweetness, and its taste gets stronger and stronger. This is life ! ». I guess he realised this during his international career which brought him to different places and industries – he got a degree in Sweden and worked for Danish, Swiss, German and UK companies as a Senior manager. So when I came up with the idea and then also founded Capital Mandarin Chinese school, of course he placed his favourite saying again and pointed out that it might be tough at the beginning. But overall he liked it and he supports me very much, because, as he says, he is looking forward to seeing me enjoying my work and the experience with the school getting sweeter with time, like his beloved Pu’er tea.
Now a question that students have to answer all the time : what are your hobbies?
I like to read – I have studied literature for a reason (laughs) – and I like to travel wherever my path takes me. One of my favorite sayings in Chinese is « 读万卷书行万里路 » which means « reading 10’000 books and travelling 10’000 miles ». My interpretation of it is that reading deepens your knowledge and travelling widens your horizon about life. So my work is basically my hobby, since the School allows me to « read » by listening to the student stories and to figuratively travel to the places they tell me about.
Why teach foreigners?
When I was in Singapore and started teaching Chinese as a second language, I realised that there are two main problems in communication between cultures. The first one is cultural subjectivity: The questions foreigners asked me were informed by incomplete or biased information transmitted by media. I realised that the questions I asked them were suffering from same faults as well, but in other direction. In every country the media highlights what is in their best interest and suppresses what could not be understood easily. The second problem is the tool of communication, the language itself. In order to get a complete picture of a civilization, both problems need to be overcome. This is why I invite foreigners to come and learn about China here in Beijing. They can feel the difference from the media image when they stay with us and get in touch with the locals. And they can also simultaneously learn the language to diminish the walls that hinder an even deeper understanding of themselves in relation to the Chinese culture and vice versa.
What were the challenges you encountered when founding Capital Mandarin?
There were a lot of challenges, for sure, but there was one special obstacle that I consider the hardest challenge I personally had to overcome : finding the right teaching method. In the 80ies when China opened to the outside world, most of teachers in all disciplines used a very academic approach to teaching. For learning a language, however, the academic approach is not always the one that ensures fast and lasting progress. It is too much based on understanding, and not enough based on applying a language. So in order to make the students truly use and speak a language – as opposed to simply understanding it – I needed to find a more pragmatic way to make a teacher and a student interact. The student, in the end, should be able to really speak the language. I think understanding this idea was a crucial, albeit difficult, step for successful launch of Capital Mandarin School.
Talking about steps, what was the most interesting career step you have undertaken?
Oh. Again, there were two, not just one. The first step was when I graduated and became a teacher. In traditional, Confucian China, a teacher represented a leader by example, and as such, a leader that cannot possibly be questioned in his leadership. So on one hand there was a huge responsibility put on my shoulders and I had to adapt to that. On the other hand I learnt that, despite the responsibility as a teacher, my own decisions are not sacrosanct – even as a teacher one has insecurities and one can be challenged by a student – especially if the student is an individual that has been trained to question and check authority as long as he/she does not get a logically satisfying answer. So the step of becoming a teacher is interesting because on one hand it means becoming a person of great power and responsibility, but, almost paradoxically, one also must realise that one will always remain a student when being a teacher, because sometimes students have ideas that are improving your own knowledge. In Capital Mandarin, we have students from 5 to 77 years old, which is, for me, a proof that I was right. It’s never too late nor too early to learn new things and ways. The second most interesting step was creating a School on my own. Capital Mandarin is my baby, so to say. I invest a lot of time into this School, because I believe that what we are doing has a value beyond pure language training, it is culture training as well. And I think that the fact that I give so much of me means that the School has become part of my family and that I am part of the school’s family. Everything is reciprocal.
What is the happiest & saddest moment of teaching Chinese to foreigners?
The happiest moments are those when we receive constructive feedback about our teachers or our work. There is so much of every teacher in their work that every reaction from our students values us as individuals. The saddest moments for me are the ones where we have to say goodbye to the people who fill the school with their knowledge and their willingness to share that knowledge. Seeing a good teacher leave because he/she gets married, or simply because life happens, is similar to seeing members of your family move out. I would much rather just welcome more and more people to share their stories with us and the students until we can fill Beijing library with our know-how (laughs).
What would you say to your younger self in regard to teaching?
Use what you see to write your own book. You’ve got energy and dreams, go out there and explore, because only then you can innovate and deliver new ways to teach.
What are your favourite parts about being a Director of a School?
I like teaching the teachers. I’m sad to see that with the rigid and outdated education system at the Universities, good teachers are actually hindered in developing their talents. I always love the moments when a teacher in my class realises where his/her dormant potential lies, and what one can do if we provide some support or some pedagogic knowledge that he/she has never been confronted with. And the most rewarding thing is of course when they implement this with our students and the students are then baffled about how fast and sustainably they actually can learn Chinese.
What does Capital Mandarin School’s Chinese name mean?
« 天下汇友 » the Chinese Name of Capital Mandarin means, « all under heaven friends get together ». In Imperial China, « All under heaven » was the designation for the world, with – as most of the Chinese students know because of the Character 中－middle – China in its center. The interesting thing about this concept is that it does not create an absolute barrier between what is in the center and what is at the periphery. Everything is all under heaven, even the tribes in Mongolia and China’s east or the marauding Pirate people near the Chinese coast. So when creating the school’s Chinese name, we wanted to take up this very integrative aspect of Chinese philosophy, and combine with it a modern idea of an international community : create a place where exchange can happen, friendships can be formed and different cultures understood – after all, we, the people of the world, are « all under heaven ».
What does CMS mean to you?
There are two aspects to that question. On one hand Capital Mandarin School was founded on the 8th of May 8th 2006, which happens to be my birthday (Yes, the school is Taurus too…). So the School is a very integral part of myself. On the other hand one has to care for it and give it the values one holds dear, and when growing up it will reward you with so many memorable moments. I therefore also consider it to be one of my babies.
What is special about your teaching method?
We first focus on the spoken bit of Chinese, so after only 60 hours one is able to survive in Beijing, and after 120 hours of class one can pass the HSK2/A2 langue test and move on to HSK3/B1. So far there is nothing special to the method – fast and efficient learning is the goal and pillar of every successful private school. However, at Capital Mandarin we combine language with philosophy, history, society, etiquette and many aspects that are very different from other cultures. This makes the process of understanding much more profound and as we have seen with our Students, much more satisfying. Moreover, learning a language is not only about the language as an instrument of communication, it is also about understanding the kind of thoughts it enables. Due to the close connection between Chinese written language to the transmission of Chinese thought and culture through this very connection makes Chinese even more special in this aspect.
Why did you chose Beijing as a center for the School?
Besides the fact that I have grown up in Beijing ? (laughs) Of course, actually it is because I am convinced that, when learning and applying a language, one should be able to communicate in the standard version of this language. This is simply because this enables you to be understood by the largest part of the speakers of this specific language. Mandarin Chinese is largely based on the Beijing dialect and therefore is spoken and written by the media, TV and film, as well as newspapers and magazines in China. Plus, Beijing as a city is very much proud of its culture. The people’s perception of the Capital is one of the as the most important and most… righteous ? Most ideal ? I don’t know an English word specific to what I want to say… Beijing is the place where decisions are made, the seat of power and the seat of culture and is therefore the most stereotypical place in China – which is what makes it so interesting for foreigners. I think all of these reasons show that there is no better place to learn Chinese language and culture than here. This is the reason why Beijing, and more specifically Gaobedian culture village, has become Capital Mandarin School’s headquarters.
Is this really the complete answer why the new Capital Mandarin Campus is at Gaobeidian Culture Village?
Hm. No, no, it goes deeper. Gaobeidian was a little town near the start of the Beijing-Hangzhou Channel 京杭大运河, the main trading route of China during the last 5 dynasties. Over time, this little 700 year old village has become a district of Beijing and finally has recently been renewed in an effort to create a more specific Chinese culture « corridor » in Beijing. The buildings of which our Campus is part of are held in traditional Ming/Qing dynasty exterior architecture with modern facilities and traditional design on the inside too. The businesses around here consist of many Museums, Calligraphy schools, traditional furniture craft shops, teahouses of all kinds, Chinese medicine teaching centers, TV production companies, cosy hotels and local restaurants and bars for all budgets and one great Chinese-style mall that will be open in 2015. It is a mini-universe of Chineseness which is what I personally like and what I think also foreigners would enjoy. Going to the modern downtown business center to learn Mandarin is nothing different from learning Chinese in the international Centers of the world like New York, London, Tokyo, Sydney, Rio, Johannesburg, Dubai and what not. One might as well stay at home then. But here, in Gaobeidian, the culture is cherished in all the scents and styles that China has to offer – which is what makes the trip to Capital Mandarin Gaobeidian campus worth it for more than the language.
Now that we’ve talked about the location, what about the people who make the Campus alive ? What is the criteria for new teachers and staff?
Oh, the answer is simple: attitude. Specifically, the attitude towards teaching. A person who teaches needs a special kind of passion about the subject he tries to explain to his or her students. If I can see this in a person, no matter how different this passion might be from my own, it is what makes this individual a person I would like to learn from. Naturally, if we hire a full time teacher a bachelors degree and a teaching certificate are important to ensure the pedagogic quality of their classes, but it is as such not sufficient to be able to teach at Capital Mandarin School. The two criteria are merely the necessary fundament to build on. After having assured its existence we can start training staff and teachers according to our own higher standards – we not only want to be better than other schools, we also want to innovate towards a more wholesome approach to Chinese culture and language. Teachers, therefore, can start teaching and rise in internal ranks of the teaching hierarchy after having participated in my own coaching courses and training sessions throughout the year.
What are your goals for the School?
There are many. But it is safe to say that we would like to increase international cooperation as well as grow the number of students and staff in a slow but steady pace over the next 5 years. We have the option to expand our campus and I would be very willing to do so because it only makes the experience for our students more memorable. On another note, we would like to expand our cultural & teaching programs in order to develop a unique knowledge hub for visitors of all interests and walks of life, be they short term tourists, long term local expats, translators, interested seniors and excited youth. I for sure am looking forward to what lies ahead!
What can the students expect?
With our new Campus that contains classrooms as well as accommodation in one building, we finally can offer the all in one experience we wanted to achieve the last 4 years. Everything is possible in Gaobeidian, accommodation, security, close public transport, traditional style and modern facilities and teaching, interesting cooperations with partners (teahouses, calligraphy artists, museums, furniture expositions, etc.), a myriad of different classes, a number of competent full time teachers here give the students the most complete Chinese experience they can imagine. Oh… and as of November we will also have our own western-quality Coffee Machine (laughs). I’ve been told that for many foreigners coffee is the fuel to start the day – especially if they have to study after breakfast. So I hope the students’ Chinese will improve even faster with some caffeine (laughs).
Thank you, Ma Laoshi, for this interview !