AcademicsJun 16, 2020

Tanya Kalischer shares her passion for Chinese

Tanya Kalischer’s aim is to expose students to the richness of Chinese language and culture — and do it in a fun and engaging way.

Tanya Kalischer planned to stay one year at MHS. That was 25 years ago.

“It was just going to be a one-year experience,” recalls Tanya, who returned to the Berkshires from China, where her husband, Chris, was finishing his doctoral research. The plan was to find a one-year post while Chris wrote his dissertation.

“Just by chance, they had an empty apartment at Miss Hall’s, and it was exactly what we were looking for,” says Tanya, who signed on as a resident in Witherspoon — for the next nine years. “We loved being there, and we loved living in the Berkshires.”

The following year, Tanya was asked to take over the Weekend Activities program, and she hasn’t stopped adding hats since — International Student Alliance Advisor, Junior Class Advisor, Chair of the Spectrum Fund Committee, and, new this year, International Student Advisor.

It was in 2007 that Tanya launched the popular Chinese Language and Culture class at MHS. A year earlier, Pam Breslin, then the Language Department Chair, had approached her about teaching Chinese, because the Department was looking to expand its offerings.

“It was a little intimidating, but I have absolutely adored it,” recalls Tanya, who had previously taught English and English as a Second Language during another stay in Taiwan, but had never considered teaching Chinese. “I have just had incredible students, and I have really enjoyed watching them excel,” she adds. “I love the convergence of learning the language and finding the confidence to speak it, and also understanding the language in the context of the culture.”

As for Tanya’s history with the language, it grew from a need to eat. After she and Chris graduated from Wesleyan University, where Chris was an East Asian Studies major and had previously lived in China, he suggested they go to Taiwan to teach English and study Chinese and Taijiquan.

“I could say ‘Hello,’ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying,’” says Tanya. “We would eat at little restaurants, and I am a very strict vegetarian. Chris would order for me, and my food would arrive with dried pork, which didn’t make me happy. Finally, Chris said he wouldn’t order for me, so if I wanted to eat, I had to learn how to speak Chinese.”

In the years since that first stay, she and Chris have taken a number of research trips to China, often staying in small, remote villages. As Tanya describes it, she learned the language “backwards,” picking it up on the street while living in Taiwan and teaching at Tunghai University. Tanya also conducted graduate research on the environmental movement that emerged in Taiwan following the termination of martial law in 1987. While Chris was doing his doctoral research, they stayed for a year in a remote mountainous area of Fujian Province, China. “We were the only foreigners there, and nobody spoke English,” Tanya notes. “But there were many six- and seven-year-old children who played with my two-year-old-son, Aaron. They spoke magnificent Chinese, and I spent hours every day surrounded by these children, who were my teachers.”

Later, Tanya took an intensive Chinese immersion course at Middlebury College, where she learned to read and write. As a result, she concurrently teaches her students to read, write, and speak.

“Chinese is an incredibly challenging language to learn, but it is beautiful to speak and write,” notes Tanya, who describes her classroom as relaxed and playful, but structured. “I want the classroom to feel safe and comfortable, so students can experiment and feel totally okay with making mistakes.”

Tanya’s aim is to expose students to the richness of the language and culture — including current events, music, art, philosophy, history, and religion — and do it in a fun and engaging way. She often uses photos, videos, and examples from her extensive field work in China, to augment the classroom experience.

“I love seeing students start with a complete lack of knowledge and, then, around October, they’re writing paragraphs, having conversations, and playing games,” she says, and a number of her students have gone on to take Chinese in college.

“My goal is that by the end of the year, they will feel comfortable having conversations with one another and with our Chinese students. “I love seeing them have a passion, not only for the language and the art of it, but also for Chinese culture.”