2007_05_chinesesigns.jpg

There's a fantastic look at a cross-section of Queens residents in the Times today. There's a feature about a Wednesday night class at the James A. Bland Houses in Flushing, where a group of curious and determined residents are learning Mandarin. There's an Italian-American woman who explains, "Kind of like, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,'" a few people who simply want to communicate with their neighbors, and an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who knows seven other languages. The latter student, Frank Sygal, totally inspires us:

Mr. Sygal grew up outside Krakow and lost his parents on an August day in 1942 when German soldiers rounded up Jews, stripped off their jewelry and machine-gunned them. His facility with languages helped him survive: He spoke Russian with the Russian soldiers, Ukrainian with the Ukrainians and German with the Germans, reserving Hebrew for private spaces. Once he arrived in New York in 1949, there were two more languages to learn — English and Spanish.

Now, at 85, he has embarked on his last great linguistic effort. His progress has been maddeningly slow; at one point, Mr. Sygal approached “dozens” of Chinese people, he said, in a fruitless attempt to translate the word “ka-ching,” a term he had seen in a headline in The New York Post and assumed to be Chinese. He hopes that he will be able to carry on a conversation in Mandarin by the time he is 95.

“If I be around,” he said, “I be able to speak.”

Heh, "ka-ching." Retired bus driver, Donald Henton, who asked City Councilman John Liu to sponsor them, had hoped the classes would be standing room, but they aren't and not everyone sees the value of learning Chinese. One woman tells the Times, "I was born here. Why should I learn their language?"

Here's a graphic from the Times showing how many Chinese residents are in Queens. Of course, not every Chinese resident speaks Mandarin, but many do. And, heck, you can even learn Mandarin online.

Photograph of signs in Chinatown by rdcapasso on Flickr