English lessons build unity Language program offers tutoring for merchants, workers

December 01, 1996|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

In the early morning, while the security gates are rolled down over the stores on Greenmount Avenue, merchants and restaurant workers gather at a former Chinese restaurant in Waverly to study English.

In accents of Italian, Spanish and Chinese, they call out simple words like yard, aunt, dining room, garage, kitchen. Together, they study opposites and fill in the blanks on their workbooks.

They might never have greeted each other on the streets before. But now, inside the Safe and Smart Center, an Italian, a Dominican, a Chinese man and a Taiwanese woman find common ground in the language of their new home.

The English lessons began this summer after Sylvia Eastman had a brainstorm.

Eastman, coordinator of city and community relations for the Johns Hopkins University, discovered the impossibility of forming a merchants association when merchants couldn't talk to each other.

"We could see the barriers to becoming successful businesses. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to help them learn English? It would help them with customers and suppliers.' "

Eastman was sent by Hopkins last year to open the Safe and Smart Center and work with community leaders to revitalize the business district -- the only large commercial strip between the university's Homewood campus and old Eastern High School on 33rd Street, where Hopkins is planning a 26-acre expansion to open in 1998.

She contacted Marte Mirman, who runs the Greater Homewood Community Corporation's literacy program, and Bill Tiefenworth, who heads volunteer services at Hopkins' Homewood campus.

Together they designed a program to train community vTC volunteers and Hopkins students to teach English as a second language to business owners and workers.

Eastman went door to door along the business strip -- from the 3000 to the 3500 block of Greenmount -- distributing leaflets in Chinese, Korean, Thai and Spanish to recruit students.

The program now has eight tutors and 15 students.

Zukei Tung came to the Safe and Smart Center for English tutoring after she saw a flier advertising classes.

A native of Taiwan, she has owned the New Asia grocery store in the 3000 block of Greenmount for 10 years.

Every Thursday before her store opens, Tung meets her tutor, JiHyun Kim, a Hopkins junior. Tung reads aloud from a workbook, running her finger under each word with little hesitation.

Kim explains the few words she doesn't understand, such as "meat."

"Beef," says Kim.

"Pork?" asks Tung.

Friendship

After their session, Tung drives Kim to her class at Hopkins, then heads back to Greenmount Avenue to open her store. Inside Tung's grocery, the tidy shelves offer dried lily flowers, cans of sweet litchi and bamboo shoots by the gallon.

In just a few months of lessons, Tung has developed a special friendship with her 20-year-old tutor.

"One by one, I learn a lot," says Tung. "She understands me. My English is terrible. She help me a lot. I improve."

For Kim, the relationship with Tung is special, too. Although their cultural backgrounds are different -- Tung is Taiwanese and Kim is Korean -- the two Asian women have found much in common.

Kim notes that Tung is the same age as her mother. And the Hopkins student says Tung's experiences running a grocery store parallel her own parents' problems running a convenience store in New Jersey.

Shop talk

"She talks about her business and tells me a lot of things about her family, and there's a lot of similarity with her experience in America and my parents' experience. I can really relate to her struggles running a business. My parents have had the same struggles," said Kim.

Tiefenworth hopes the relationships between tutors and students will broaden the Baltimore horizon for Hopkins students who might start using the businesses on Greenmount Avenue. "We want to show students that Baltimore doesn't stop at St. Paul Street," he said.

For Eastman, the English lessons are starting to bring business people together in a way that she didn't expect.

"The original idea was to support business and help them speak English. Once I saw them sitting down together, I saw this as a way to build community," said Eastman.

"It's not just breaking down language barriers, but cultural barriers, too. Once the learners have sat down and struggled over something together, they realize they have something in common," she said.

Morgan Allyn, who lives in Waverly and was recently hired to run Hopkins' Safe and Smart Center, hopes the hurdles of an international neighborhood can lead to new opportunities -- like more ethnic restaurants and shops that she'd like to see move in.

"We're an international marketplace. We have a little global event happening here," she said.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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