"Nǐ hǎo!" Maria L. Gee said to her Mandarin Chinese class students as she greeted them. She had them at “hello.”
The students really enjoy the China native’s animated teaching style in the course she has been teaching for four years here at TJSL.
“When I walk in a classroom, I feel like I’m on a stage,” Gee says. “I’m pretty much a performer -- I make it exciting and fun and I love teaching law students!”
The class is perfect for TJSL students who participate in the law school’s Study Abroad Program in Hangzhou, China and many of Gee´s students are taking it for just that purpose.
Others realize that knowing some Mandarin, China’s official language, can give them an advantage in the international business arena, where China has emerged as a major player. And that is exactly why TJSL is offering the Mandarin course.
”My career aspirations include international business and employment overseas, particularly in China, one of the world's largest and fastest growing economies,” according to Reena Patel ’08 who took the course while enrolled at TJSL as an LL.M. student. “I couldn't pass up an opportunity to study Chinese ‘legalese’ at TJSL. “
“A lot of firms have offices in China or do business in China and I thought learning Chinese would give me a competitive edge,” says Dana Adams ’10, who took the class as a 2L. “Also, the professor’s been great helping us to see the culture behind the language.”
Gee confirms that it isn’t just the language she is teaching. “It’s not just the words, but the culture behind them,” Gee says.
Of course, Mandarin is a very complex language to English speakers – not only because the Chinese writing system is so different from the one we use – but also because many words can have several different meanings depending on the tone you use when you pronounce them.
“It’s really not easy,” says Gee. “But they are doing very well. I see lots of effort by the students both inside and outside the classroom, and in a short time they learn a lot – they do their homework!”
In addition to TJSL, Gee teaches Mandarin at Mesa College and the University of San Diego. In fact, one of her former students is Professor Susan Tiefenbrun, who helped create the course that Gee teaches here.
And she believes that the Mandarin the students learn in her class will surely help them whether they are part of the Study Abroad program or visiting China for business or pleasure. “I would definitely recommend the class for students planning to go to China because it was very helpful,” says Erica Aspericueta ‘10, who took the class before she left for the 2009 China Program.
”The class definitely helped me be able to communicate more easily when I was in China,” Aspericueta says. “Using basic phrases such as ‘hello, goodbye, thank you’ made me feel more connected with the culture and made the experience more memorable. Those basic words were very helpful and allowed me to more easily explore how to say other things while I was in China.” Some students, like James McAllister J.D. ’07, LL.M. ‘09, take the Mandarin class after they return from China.
”While attending the China program in the summer of ‘07, I became very interested in the Chinese culture and even learned some basic Mandarin phrases,” McAllister says. “Therefore, I saw Professor Gee's class as a great opportunity to follow up on my language skills and improve my knowledge of the culture. By the end of the semester, my friends and I were having lengthy conversations.” “My favorite part about the class was that it was really nice to have the opportunity to study a language rather than legal rules,” says Ann Ngo ’09, who took the course in her last semester at TJSL before graduating. “It's a breath of fresh air and something to look forward to after a long week of ‘IRAC-ing!’ (Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion.) I think it is rare for law students to have such a unique opportunity.”
“I wanted to get familiar with the sound of the language,” says Ariadna Ramirez ‘10. “But it’s way harder than I thought it would be.”
“She knows it’s not easy and she is very patient with us,” says Rashan Barnes ‘10, who really enjoyed taking Professor Gee’s class. “It’s fun because it’s not like a regular law class – it’s completely different.”
”Professor Gee was a very sweet, helpful, and creative instructor,” according to Reena Patel. “She tailored the lessons to our class perfectly, given the time constraints and limited backgrounds.
Gee takes her students on field trips to practice their newfound language skills. She took them to a Chinese restaurant where the waiter spoke Mandarin to them and they realized they could talk to him in his own language.
”Not only are we lucky enough to learn Chinese in law school, but we also had an opportunity to be part of the culture with a dumpling-making party hosted at her home by our very own teacher!,” Ann Ngo tells us. “’Laoshi Gee’ (as we call her) made six different delicious traditional dishes which were all wiped out within an hour. Being able to say ‘I learned how to speak Chinese and make dumplings in law school is quite something else for a law school experience!”
Again, it’s not just the language – it’s the culture.
Since her pupils are all law students, Mandarin legal terminology is just as important as the everyday terms. “The students want simple words and phrases that relate to the law,” according to Gee. “We don’t have enough time to give them a really good foundation, but they will have basic knowledge about the language. “
Fǎguān, wǒ méiyǒu biànhùrén。 (“Judge, I don’t have a lawyer.”)
During one of her classes, the blackboards are filled with legal terms and the students are also given a copy of the special textbook she created for the class, American Lawyers Speaking Chinese.
“She helps everyone,” says Ariadana Ramirez. “It’s a very interactive class and she provides a safe environment to learn.”
Maria L. Gee, whose Chinese name is 李 Lǐ (last name) 岘 Xian（first name）was born and raised in China and has been in the U.S. since 1992. In addition to being a teacher, she is a television documentary producer. Her new 12 episode documentary film, "Adrift Without Roots", that explores how immigrants adapted to their new lives in a new country, has been shown on Educational Channel for two years and many universities have used it in Asian Study programs.
In July of 2009, Professor Gee was honored at the 6th Annual Asian Heritage Awards ceremony and was presented the award for outstanding Media & Film, at an event held aboard the carrier U.S.S. Midway.
“The Asian Heritage Society did an amazing job of bringing people from different communities together,” said Professor Gee. “There were so many wonderful and talented Asian American nominees and awardees, and I felt very proud to be among them.” Not only does Professor Gee get rave reviews as a filmmaker, but as a teacher and cook as well!
“Professor Gee, who made the class enjoyable because she always encouraged role play and participation,” says Ann Ngo. “All of the students were always engaged because we had ongoing conversations in Chinese.”
“We have really enjoyed the class,” says Dana Adams ”All of us.”
“The professor is amazing,” says Erica Aspericueta.
”I highly recommend this class to anyone interested in international business, working or studying abroad, or just leisurely travel,” says Reena Patel.
Though her students fairly gush about her as a teacher, Maria Gee remains humble. It’s a Chinese cultural tradition to deny compliments, with a wave of the hand and the phase “哪里 nǎlǐ, 哪里 nǎlǐ 哪里 nǎlǐ ”No, No, No.”
To which her students would probably say: 是 shì 是 shì 是shì, which translates to Yes, Yes Yes!