Boro church a learning haven

At the center, Rev. Lenny Cheng answers students' questions about lesson content and pronunciation. From left: Shan Yumei, Lisa Huang and Julia Song. Photo by Evelyn Cheng

Cultural barriers have been lowered for the 18 Chinese immigrants who completed the We Are New York English program last month at Harvest Mission Center in Little Neck. Despite having lived several years in America, lack of confidence and opportunity have prevented these immigrants from improving their English.

“I hope that they will not be afraid of English, but dare to speak it,” said the Rev. Lenny Cheng, the English class teacher. “I hope they will have a better appreciation for the culture here.”

Cheng — the father of this reporter — became teacher of the class by accident. We Are New York reached out to his church, Harvest Church of New York, and arranged to send a volunteer to teach the 10-week class in early March. But the instructor failed to arrive, prompting Cheng to volunteer as the teacher himself.

The We Are New York project was created in 2010 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Office of Adult Education and the Office of Academic Affairs at the City University of New York. Through subtitled, 20-minute-long television shows depicting the lives of New York immigrants, the program helps immigrants learn English and acclimate to America.

“It’s not about English but also finding community,” said Kunchok Dolma, assistant director of the program.

Harvest Mission Center, at 244-97 61st Ave. in Little Neck, will serve as a center for community outreach and education after the present expansion of the center is completed this fall. With its Little Neck location, the center hopes to provide the local Chinese community with services that are closer to their homes than Flushing.

Several of the English class students work as clerks in nearby stores, but Shan yu Mei lives on Long Island and drives herself and three friends 20 minutes each Friday to attend the two-hour-long class.

“I’ve come to all the classes,” Mei said proudly. “Here I not only learn English but am also happy. I’m not a Christian, but I feel the Christian love.”

Mei identified with many of the stories featured in the We Are New York television series. Like Mexican immigrant Diego, who would rather work than attend high school in the episode “Stay in School,” Mei’s son came to America as a high schooler but failed to attend school for a month because he was discouraged by his poor English. But like the television episode, Mei’s son was able to receive English help from his school.

Liu is 66 years old and walks several miles from Lake Success, L.I., to Little Neck for the English classes. He said his listening comprehension has improved and he is less afraid of contact with Americans.

“The passion for learning English is high,” Liu said. “Many people leave America because they do not know English. No matter how well you read English, you cannot find beauty in it.”

To help ease the transition to American society, Cheng has expanded the curriculum to teach American children’s songs, including the national anthem. He has also extended the classes beyond We Are New York with self-created materials.

Robert Nieves, whose wife Yan Ling Pei attends the classes, assists Cheng with his firsthand knowledge of American language and culture.

“You get a sense of family over here. Everyone helps everyone out,” Nieves said.

Classes ended for the spring last Friday and will resume in the fall.

Reach reporter Evelyn Cheng by phone at 718-260-4524.

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