For NYC Firefighters Learning Mandarin, Service Starts With 'Ni Hao' | KUOW News and Information

For NYC Firefighters Learning Mandarin, Service Starts With 'Ni Hao'

Feb 16, 2016
Originally published on February 16, 2016 9:07 am

On Thursday nights near the Brooklyn, N.Y., waterfront, an old firehouse turns into a schoolhouse, where the drills are in Chinese.

The students are some of New York's bravest. About a dozen firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are taking the first Mandarin classes funded by the New York City Fire Department Foundation. It's the start of a voluntary program that organizers hope to expand into other Chinese dialects and Asian languages in the future. For now, these first responders spend two hours a week learning Mandarin from Lily Cheung.

"A lot of them, they're working full time. You would think they're dead tired, have no energy, but no, they just put so much energy to the class," she says. "They participate. They answer questions."

Doraun Ellis, a paramedic, has been studying on his own with a tutor for about a couple of years now. He has even tried out some Mandarin phrases on the job, asking for his patients' insurance information and preferred hospital. That, he says, surprised many Chinese speakers.

"I'm a, you know, 6-foot-2 black guy. They were not expecting me to speak Mandarin," Ellis says.

The fire department wants to see more of these kinds of interactions. New York City is home to the largest Chinese community of any city outside Asia. The city is predicting that Chinese residents are likely to become New York's largest immigrant group in the next few years.

Lt. Steven Lee, president of the FDNY Phoenix Society, a group of Asian-American firefighters and other first responders, says recruiting more Chinese-speaking first responders is not enough.

"As the department continues to diversify and increase the amount of Asian-Americans entering the fire service, that's great, but that's going to take a long time," Lee says.

That's why, he says, he organized these Mandarin classes to help the department communicate with more of the New Yorkers they serve.

"It's also to show the communities that we embrace them as citizens of this city, that we are in acceptance of their culture and the transition that they're going through," he says.

Back in the classroom, Lt. Charles Flores says his transition to becoming a Mandarin speaker helps cut out the middlemen. Interpreters can be helpful to emergency medical workers like him. But, he says, it's always better to talk to patients directly in their own language.

"I deal with people in very bad situations. It's always late at night, frantic. People are sick," he says. "If you can put them a little at ease, that's half the treatment sometimes. It's just making them feel well."

And sometimes, he says, that all begins with a "ni hao" — hello.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

New York City is home to the largest Chinese community of any city outside Asia. So Chinese is one of the most spoken languages there, but not at the local fire department. Now some firefighters and other first responders are trying to change that. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: On Thursday nights near the Brooklyn waterfront, an old firehouse turns into a schoolhouse where the drills are in Chinese.

LILY CHEUNG: Ni hao.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Ni hao.

WANG: And the students are some of New York's bravest.

GREG WONG: Wo jiao Greg.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wo jiao Michael.

DONNA MOSLEY: Wo jiao Donna.

WANG: About a dozen firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are taking these first Mandarin classes funded by the New York City Fire Department Foundation. It's the start of a voluntary program that organizers hope to expand into other Chinese dialects and Asian languages in the future.

CHEUNG: How do you say mister - like gentleman?

MOSLEY: (Speaking Mandarin).

CHEUNG: Good, very close.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Mandarin).

WANG: For now, these first responders spend two hours a week learning Mandarin from Lily Cheung.

CHEUNG: A lot of them, they're working full-time. You would think they're dead tired, have no energy, but no. They just put so much energy into the class. They participate. They answer questions.

WANG: One of her students is Donna Mosley, an EMT.

MOSLEY: When I leave here, I'm going to work because I work nights.

WANG: She finishes assigning ambulances around the city at 5 in the morning. Then she heads home to rest and do some studying.

MOSLEY: ...Usually after breakfast.

WANG: After breakfast you do Mandarin?

MOSLEY: That's when I sit down and I study the chart. I go on YouTube, and I learn different words.

WANG: Words in Mandarin that one of Mosley's classmates, Doraun Ellis, a paramedic, has been studying on his own for about a couple of years now. He's even tried out some phrases on the job and says that surprised many Chinese speakers.

DORAUN ELLIS: I'm a, you know, six-foot-two black guy. They were not expecting me to speak Mandarin. And when I asked them questions and say some things to them - (speaking Mandarin) - they'll go, oh, OK. And they'll answer, and I'll ask them for their insurance, what hospital they want to go to.

WANG: And that's the kind of interaction the fire department wants to see more of. The city's predicting that Chinese residents are likely to become New York's largest immigrant group in the next few years. Lieutenant Steven Lee leads a group of Asian-American firefighters called the FDNY Phoenix Society. He says recruiting more Chinese-speaking first responders is not enough.

STEVEN LEE: As the department continues to diversify and increase the amount of Asian Americans entering the fire service, that's great. But that's going to take a long time.

WANG: That's why he says he organized these Mandarin classes to help the department communicate with more of the New Yorkers they serve.

LEE: It's also to show the communities that we embrace them as citizens of this city - that we are in acceptance of their culture and the transition that they're going through.

CHARLES FLORES: (Speaking Mandarin) Right, so I'm a New Yorker. OK.

WANG: Back in the classroom, Lieutenant Charles Flores says his transition to becoming a Mandarin speaker helps cut out the middlemen. Interpreters can be helpful to emergency medical workers like him. But he says it's always better to talk to patients directly in their own language.

FLORES: I deal with people in very bad situations. It's always late at night. It's frantic. People are sick. You know, if you can put them a little at ease, then that's - half the treatment sometimes is just making them feel well.

WANG: And sometimes, he says, that all starts with a ni hao - hello. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.