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China: Kung Fu English
A bootcamp in the provinces


Hyun Oh

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.

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Length: 13:38

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


Captain Johann Samuhanand - BANGALORE, India
In India also English is gaining in strength and backward classes are learning to gain respect and jobs.

Having lived in China and Xinjiang, it's worth noting that the "learning English to break through" phenomenon is not exclusively a Xinjiang obsession, but a national one. One thing that this short video does not really cover is the Uighur (an ethnic minority in Xinjiang, but the majority group in the province) experience of learning English. The Uighurs are a Central Asian people, and their language resembles Turkish more than Chinese, and also uses a phonetic alphabet. It must be something to do with this that some of the best English - in terms of accent, grammar, vocabulary - I have heard spoken by "Chinese" (as in nationality) people is by Uighurs. I know more than a few people whose English is far superior to Yong's (which I, as a native English speaker who speaks Chinese, would qualify as "not bad...for a Chinese national"). In fact, in the video, one of the teachers at the camp (who is testing the kids outside the canteen) appears to be Uighur. In a country where the Han Chinese willingly impose their cultural and social superiority over many minority groups, Uighurs who speak excellent English find this to be the best way to have a foothold into a better life. Interesting that this was not pointed out in the video, particularly as it seems to put Xinjiang as a focus of the piece.

I was born in Mexico City and I began to learn English in my teens. I decided that I wanted to learn about the world and English could be the key to do that.
Because of the English language I was able to go to study in the United States. I lived in New York City for 18 years and I have traveled the world. Now I am an English teacher in Barcelona and I find Yong's approach to teaching to be something very special and unique. He is inviting his students to learn from the inside out in order to have a deeper learning experience. How many teachers can say that?

Sheri Huber - Minneapolis , MN
What a beautiful and inspiring story. Thanks. I look forward to seeing the longer documentary.