Other China Stories
Watch more of our stories from China exploring the country's rapid growth through the eyes of a new wave of Chinese filmmakers and the environmental issues affecting the country.
Born in Seoul, Hyun Oh is a producer and director of photography at KBS America, the U.S. affiliate of the national network in South Korea. In 2008, he graduated from the documentary film program at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. His Master's thesis film, Kung Fu English, won the Hearst Prize for Excellence in Documentary awarded by the school and it has been selected for the 2008 Toronto Student Shorts Film Festival.
To most outsiders, the autonomous region of Xinjiang in remote western China is best known for the spectacular dunes of the Taklamakan desert and the long-running struggle for independence among the region's Muslim Uighur people.
China's Communist Party took over the oil-rich territory in 1949, and sent 200,000 troops there to settle permanently in the region. Thousands of Han Chinese women soon followed to help propagate the Han Chinese bloodline.
Today, half a century later, the Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang are seen by many of their counterparts in the east as ignorant desert dwellers -- country bumpkins living as farmers and cotton pickers far from civilization, and considered as unruly and maligned as their Uighur neighbors.
Jake Yong, a Han Chinese who grew up in Xinjiang, told me that the social stigma of being born in the province is a handicap in China's fast-moving culture, where Western influence continues to spread. I met the 27-year-old while reporting another story in the province in 2007 and was immediately struck by his infectious personality and desire to improve his prospects and encourage those around him to do the same.
The Xinjiang skyline.
According to Yong, mastering fluency in English was his best chance of competing against sophisticated Chinese in high-flying cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Using techniques that would become his trademark, he learned the language with a rigorous schedule of self-schooling. He shouted out words from an English textbook and repeated them over and over in the mirror -- also working Kung Fu into his routines, he says, to sharpen his mental agility. Within six months, practicing 15 hours a day, he was fluent enough to find work as an English-Chinese interpreter. Almost immediately, he noticed people treating him with more respect as he traveled with his work.
Kung Fu English, which is part of a longer documentary I made about Yong, is a testament to his irrepressible can-do spirit as he converts his own experience into seminars and boot camps for his equally enthusiastic fans.
"For the Xinjiang people, English is not just a language," Yong says. It's a weapon against prejudice. What he teaches his students, he told me, goes far beyond words.
-- Hyun Oh