May 2, 2024

Jasmine Tang ’96: Teaching Chinese with Joy and Purpose

Jasmine Tang ’96 never set out to teach Chinese. But for the last 33 years, she has dedicated her career to teaching not only the language, but also the culture and customs.

Today, as a lecturer and adjunct faculty member at SUNY Geneseo and adjunct associate professor at Monroe County Community College, she is an ambassador for Chinese culture. She is about to start working on the fourth edition of her book “Let’s Speak Chinese.” And every Lunar New Year, she attends Empire State University’s celebration luncheon, and talks about the holiday and its significance in Chinese culture.

“My principle of teaching the language and culture is to teach how to appreciate each individual and interact with people with joy and good manners,” she says. “You need to feel positive to learn well.  In order to get an A, you have to be able to read, write, understand and converse in Chinese.”


A Worldly Upbringing

Tang was born in Shanghai and moved to Taiwan with her family. Both her parents worked in health care, her father as a physician specializing in internal medicine and pediatrics, and her mother as a registered nurse.

When her father was invited to Libya by then King Idris, the family moved again, and Tang her brothers and sister went to an Arabic school. “My father’s philosophy was that living in different countries with different cultures was the best education,” Tang says.

In Libya, she learned to use humor to disarm people, as she struggled to speak French and Arabic. “I told my dad, ‘Every time I open my mouth, people are laughing,’” Tang recalls. “He said, ‘That’s good. You make people happy. That’s how you learn.’ He told me not to have low self-esteem but to have a thick skin and be confident.”

At 18, Tang decided to go to the Royal Hospital in London to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. At the British Embassy, she was told she needed an English name. She already had a Chinese name —Kong-Yan — as well as an Arabic name, Jasmilla. The consulate gave her the name Jasmine.

As the only Chinese nurse at the Royal Hospital, she was chosen for a viewing of “Doctor Doolittle,” where the British royal family was in attendance. After learning the royal manners, Tang was invited to meet Prince Charles — “He’s handsome!” — and Queen Elizabeth — “She had skin like a pearl.” Her meeting with the royal family was captured in London newspapers.


Coming to America

In 1971, Tang decided to join her family in the U.S. She went to work on the orthopedic floor of a hospital in New Mexico, where she grew disillusioned by the way pain patients were treated with large prescriptions for painkillers. After two years, she quit.

By then, she had met her husband at the University of New Mexico, where she was working on a business degree, and he was finishing his Ph.D. in math. The couple married and eventually moved to Geneseo, NY, where he got a job at SUNY Geneseo as a math professor, a job he holds to this day.

While in Geneseo, the chair of the foreign language department asked Tang if she could teach Chinese. At first, she said no. “I had no degree in Chinese language nor in teaching,” she says.

But Tang couldn’t resist. She started the Chinese language program by preparing her own teaching materials from scratch.  After a year, when the department’s budget was cut, she quit. Instead, she was working nights at the college health center while raising three kids. She had also decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology, which she obtained in 1987.


Diving In

In 1991, Tang got a call from the SUNY Geneseo foreign language department again. This time, she decided to take the plunge. By then, she’d been working as a Chinese language and culture consultant for local school districts. She’d also served as an interpreter for the Livingston County Court and Health Department, a lecturer for the local BOCES, School board director at Geneseo Central School, and a teacher for the Rochester Chinese Institute.

Tang decided to go back to college. She graduated in 1996 with a master’s in liberal arts and a concentration in Chinese education from Empire State University.

Over time, Tang became widely known for her efforts in teaching Chinese. She wrote textbooks, presented at conferences, and organized Chinese culture clubs at both SUNY Geneseo and MCCC. She also hosted dinner gatherings for faculty, students, and the community.

For her work, she received numerous accolades, including an Award of Distinction from the Chinese Language Education and Research Center (CLERC) for outstanding contributions to the promotion of Chinese language education in the U.S. and the Award for Outstanding Academic Contributions to the Field of World Languages and Culture from SUNY Empire State College. In 2015, she received a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Adjunct Teaching.

Today, she continues to teach various aspects of Chinese culture, from language to calligraphy to medicine. “My students also learn how to sing, dance, and write,” Tang says. “I teach the whole culture. Language and culture, you cannot separate them.”