Learn Chinese from these Caucasians

Elementary Chinese teacher Pauli Haakenson, high school Chinese teacher Sally Lean and elementary counsellor Robin Pearson are from the Singapore American School, Associate Professor John Donaldson teaches political science at the Singapore Managemen
Elementary Chinese teacher Pauli Haakenson, high school Chinese teacher Sally Lean and elementary counsellor Robin Pearson are from the Singapore American School, Associate Professor John Donaldson teaches political science at the Singapore Management University and (above) Mr Tim Hudson heads the department for English as an additional language at the Australian International School. -- PHOTO: AUSTRALIAN INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL
Elementary Chinese teacher Pauli Haakenson, high school Chinese teacher Sally Lean and elementary counsellor Robin Pearson are from the Singapore American School, (above) Associate Professor John Donaldson teaches political science at the Singapore M
Elementary Chinese teacher Pauli Haakenson, high school Chinese teacher Sally Lean and elementary counsellor Robin Pearson are from the Singapore American School, (above) Associate Professor John Donaldson teaches political science at the Singapore Management University and Mr Tim Hudson heads the department for English as an additional language at the Australian International School. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY
(From far left) Elementary Chinese teacher Pauli Haakenson, high school Chinese teacher Sally Lean and elementary counsellor Robin Pearson are from the Singapore American School, Associate Professor John Donaldson teaches political science at the Sin
(From far left) Elementary Chinese teacher Pauli Haakenson, high school Chinese teacher Sally Lean and elementary counsellor Robin Pearson are from the Singapore American School, Associate Professor John Donaldson teaches political science at the Singapore Management University and Mr Tim Hudson heads the department for English as an additional language at the Australian International School. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE AMERICAN SCHOOL

When American Pauli Haakenson speaks in Mandarin to taxi drivers and neighbours at the supermarket, some will switch to English halfway through the conversation and say: "Your Mandarin is better than mine."

No surprise. After all, the 48-year-old teaches Chinese at the Singapore American School.

While a spokesman for the Ministry of Education says its records show no Caucasians are teaching mother tongue languages in its schools, a check with 14 international schools, universities and institutes found that Mr Haakenson is among six Caucasian educators here with a good command of Chinese.

While SundayLife! could not find Caucasians who have mastered Malay or Tamil well enough to teach these languages, a handful have certified proficiency in written or spoken Chinese, and use the language daily in a professional setting.

These Westerners previously lived in Chinese-speaking places such as China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, and most have Mandarin-speaking spouses. At least two teach Chinese here.

Australian Sally Lean, 43, for example, is a high school teacher at the Singapore American School. She teaches Chinese to students aged 14 to 18, who come from countries such as India, South Korea and the United States.

The children are taught to read passages, write compositions and tell stories in the language, among other skills.

Last month, Ms Lean was certified to have an "advanced high" level of speaking proficiency by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The organisation aims to improve and expand the teaching and learning of all languages.

Says Ms Lean: "Some of my friends and colleagues joke that I'm an 'egg' - white on the outside but yellow on the inside.

"I started learning Chinese in an Australian school when I was 12 and have loved it from the very first day.

"Chinese lets me learn more about China, a rising global power whose future is inextricably linked to the future of our world."

Her colleague, Mr Haakenson, is an elementary Chinese teacher who passed Level Five of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi two years ago.

His results in the international standardised exam, which tests and rates Chinese language proficiency, prove he has a vocabulary of at least 2,500 Chinese characters.

He can also read Chinese newspapers and magazines, understand Chinese films and plays, as well as give a full-length speech in Mandarin.

Mr Haakenson, whose wife is Taiwanese, has two children, aged 13 and 10, and the family speaks English and Mandarin at home.

"At work, I teach and conduct meetings in Mandarin. So my whole day is spent immersed in the language," he says.

Associate Professor John Donaldson, 44, who teaches political science at the Singapore Management University, says his interest in Chinese culture grew after a six-month study programme to Beijing and Nanjing in 1990.

The American, who can speak fluent Mandarin and has a degree in Chinese language and literature from Washington University, says: "During that trip, I became very interested in Chinese society - how they lived, worked and how different they are from Western society."

For example, he points out that extended families in China tend to live together. "As a result, elderly family members are not as isolated and feel lonely less often compared to those in the West. When it comes to issues like childcare, Chinese families also have more resources to draw upon," he notes.

"I'm fascinating by such aspects of Chinese society, which differ greatly from those in the West."

Mr Tim Hudson, an Australian who taught Chinese to secondary students in Australia, China and Singapore for more than 15 years, says being proficient in Chinese has been "life-changing" in both his career and personal life.

The 46-year-old, who heads the department for English as an additional language at the Australian International School here, says: "It allowed me to interact with and immerse myself in the local culture in Shanghai while I was teaching there."

He taught Chinese, English, mathematics and science in the Chinese city during the 1990s.

"Through Chinese, I learnt the importance of 'guanxi' or connections, without which success would be difficult to achieve for the average Joe in China," he adds.

He also met his wife in China. They have been married for 20 years and have a teenage son.

Says Mr Hudson: "We make sure our son is also exposed to Chinese by teaching it to him at home.

"Chinese has already expanded his horizons, and I hope it continues to do so throughout his life, just like it has done for me."