Alaska News

Chinese language studied for many reasons

Friday evenings at Central Middle School the classrooms are alive with syllables.

"Ah! Ou! En! Ang! Eng! Ong! Er!" shouts Minnie Yen.

"Ah! Ou! En! Ang! Eng! Ong! Er!" her students call back.

The language is Mandarin Chinese, and the students are part of the Alaska Chinese Association's Yen Wulin Alaska Chinese School, which turned 25 this year.

The 80 or so students, ranging from grade-schoolers to adults, come to the school for a wide variety of reasons. Some have Chinese or Taiwanese parents, some have adopted Chinese children, some want to learn for business. The majority are English speakers learning Chinese, though the school also offers one class for Chinese speakers who want to learn English, according to principal Tina Meiser.

The Chinese community in Anchorage is the fourth largest Asian group, behind Filipinos, Koreans and Japanese. During the last census, there were roughly 1,500 people from China and Taiwan living in Anchorage, though community members say the number now is likely higher. The Chinese community is relatively small, but interest in the Chinese language is steady and growing, Meiser said.

Yen was teaching a beginning Chinese class to about 20 students, many of them parents and children together. The lesson on a recent Friday was about intonation. In Mandarin, there are four different ways to say the same word and each has a different meaning. A word can be said with a flat tone, a tone like a question, a tone that begins flat and ends like a question, or a forceful tone. Take the word "gi." It could mean "hurry up" or "happiness" or "crowded" or "mail," all depending on the way it is said. Though they sound the same, the words are represented with different Chinese characters.


Jacob Carpenter repeated the syllables with his son Jaeus, who is 7. This is their second semester of Chinese, he said. He became interested in the language because he studied kung fu.

"We ended up knowing a lot of people in the Chinese community that way."

In another room down the hall, Jim Hughes paged through a book with his teacher Xiwei Yang. Hughes is learning Chinese to better communicate with his wife. They married in China a year and a half ago, and he hopes she will come to live with him here in Alaska.

"Trying to retain stuff from a school book is a lot different than when you were a child," he said.

In another classroom, Sandy Chung wrote a Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood with her children Christopher, 10, and Stephanie, 7. Chung is originally from Taiwan and her children visit every summer. The classes help reinforce the language they hear at home, and knowing the language keeps them connected to Taiwanese culture, she said. She plans to send her children to summer camp in Taiwan this year.

Dan Eck waited in the multi-purpose room, watching his youngest daughter, Xing Xing, 4, do gymnastics moves on the floor. Two of his three children are adopted from China. The whole family has taken language classes, except Xing Xing who will start when she is a little older.

The school allows his daughters to be around Chinese speakers and Chinese culture, giving them a sense of Chinese identity. As some adopted girls grow up and go to college, they find communities of Chinese students their age and can feel out of place if they don't speak the language or have a sense of the culture. Connecting his daughters with a community in school helps combat that.

"We plan on going back there and visiting; it makes it a lot easier to talk to people," he said.

Find Julia O'Malley online at or call 257-4591.


Julia O'Malley

Anchorage-based Julia O'Malley is a former ADN reporter, columnist and editor. She received a James Beard national food writing award in 2018, and a collection of her work, "The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska," was published in 2019. She's currently writer in residence at the Anchorage Museum.