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People of Toronto: Yollanda Zhang

By Sanela Kurtek

Original article appeared in Torontoism

Yollanda Zhang is the founder and the leader of Panda Mandarin, a Mandarin school for children and adults in mid-town Toronto. Panda Mandarin is unique in that it aims to make the language fun, engaging, and authentic. Zhang's newest venture is Girl.Strong., a girl empowerment program for young girls to gain confidence and to take charge. Girl.Strong. is a project that is inspired by Zhang's late grandmother, who was her role model and continues to be her muse.

What’s your connection to Toronto?

I immigrated with my parents from China to Toronto in 1990. I went to engineering school and worked in the corporate world for a few years. Afterwards, I decided to make a career switch to teaching math and physics in high school. I made another career switch into entrepreneurship when I started Panda Mandarin in mid-town Toronto. I chose mid-town Toronto because I live here with my husband and daughter. My husband and I love the area and really wanted our daughter to learn Mandarin in the community.

What makes Panda Mandarin unique compared to other Mandarin schools?

We can summarize our teaching methodology in three words: fun, engaging, and authentic. When we train our teachers, we tell them that "before you teach this lesson, you need to look at it through the eyes of the child and actually see if they would have fun and feel engaged. If you feel that they wouldn’t, you need to re-examine your methodology and make it fun and engaging."

Additionally, for us, authentic means giving students things that they can actually use. From my husband’s and my own experience, we were tortured with memorizing Chinese poems in our Chinese schools, and I often wondered why these schools spent so much time teaching us these things we would hardly ever use. Now, I understand the cultural relevance, and how it's great for kids to learn and stay connected to the heritage. However, it's still really hard for children to learn a language when memorizing poetry is a big part of the curriculum. For Panda Mandarin, it's very important to teach children language that they can actually use. We've heard stories of our students and their families going to Asia and having their child's Mandarin help the family during the trip. That's what we're really proud of.

Why is Mandarin becoming more important in Canadian society?

There are a few different reasons. First, many first-generation Chinese-Canadians can't speak their heritage language anymore, so we want our kids to learn it. The second reason is that China is becoming a huge economic power and there's a lot of attention on how this will affect the job market going forward. So speaking Mandarin can increase one’s employability. The third reason is that learning a second language is really good for children. Studies show that learning tonal languages—like Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese—can unlock a part of the child’s brain that no other learning of languages can do. The more of a child's brain that can be developed through different activities, the better it is for their future learning. Studies have also shown that people who can speak two or more languages have a lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s.

The pictures and videos on the Panda Mandarin website show that your student body is very multi-cultural. Where do non-Chinese parents find value in their children learning Mandarin?

The key benefit that parents find is that we allow children to see the world through a different lens. Anytime we give a child or person a chance to speak a new language, they gain access to a whole new world. Panda Mandarin gives students the tools to access this new world. Because Toronto is so multicultural, it's easy for our students to go to a Chinese restaurant and order in Mandarin, and instantly, they're building relationships that they wouldn't have without these language skills. Parents are very proud of this and so are we.

Of all the Panda Mandarin classes, do you have a favourite?

How do you pick a favourite child? It's really hard to pick a favourite mainly because each class is so different. For example, the corporate program, which we taught at Sotheby's, is a really fun experience because the participants are amazing people. Teaching children is a totally different thing. They see the world through such fresh eyes. And for us to have the experience of seeing it with them is incredible.

At the moment, we're launching a new program to focus on girl empowerment. It’s called Girl. Strong. I can easily say that this program is one of my favourites right now because I’ve spent so much time getting it off the ground. Girl. Strong. is like my baby in its infancy stage whereas all the other programs are more mature and able to function on their own.

Girl. Strong. is inspired by your grandmother. Can you elaborate on your relationship with her and exactly how she inspired Girl. Strong.?

My grandmother raised me from almost the day I was born until I was three-and-a-half years old. She had a very tough upbringing, and it really shaped who she became. She was always told that she wasn't smart and that she was fat. She really didn't have any positive role models in her life other than her mother who was often away trying to make a living. As a result, she became socially withdrawn and had really low self-esteem. But in reality, she had had so many accomplishments in her life. She was very smart and hardworking and patient. She just didn't see that in herself.

Yollanda learning to use the abacus with grandma.

I thought that it’s incredibly unfortunate for girls now to feel the same way. Even girls who live in privileged communities don't always see themselves positively. I've interviewed many moms and daughters to launch this program, and I realized so much of what I saw in my grandmother might be happening to girls in my own community. I really want to do what I can and use the skills and experiences that I have—coming from a male-dominated engineering sector—to offer girls in the community the ability to live limitless lives. I think this could be an incredible gift that I could give.

Girl. Strong. focuses a lot on the mother-daughter relationship. Why is that and why do you feel that the mother-daughter relationship is important for female empowerment?

I think it really comes from the research that a girl's (or any person’s for that matter) view of the world is shaped by the time that they're 14. In a girl’s early life, her time is spent with her mom as the primary role model. If a girl's relationship and foundation with that primary role model is not a positive one or if it has underlying issues, it could really impact the way a girl views the world at large.

From personal experience, I had experienced an attachment injury because I was raised exclusively from a young age by my grandparents, and it was challenging getting over that. My mom and I had to work hard to rebuild some missing pieces of our relationship, even if the event happened at a young age. This gave me a really unique perspective on the importance of mother-daughter relationships, and it also gave me a sense of urgency and importance in this relationship. If you don't deal with it earlier on, when you get older, harder issues will accumulate to prevent your relationship from flourishing. The mother-daughter relationship is always known as the most beautiful but complicated relationship.

Yollanda with her daughter

Going from a high school teacher, with a secure income and a legendary pension, to an entrepreneur, how did you feel about this transition?

I have to fully admit that going from teaching to entrepreneurship has been really hard. It's not something that I thought would be so hard to overcome. I've always been a successful professional and part of people's judgments of a successful professional is that they make a good living. So for me, it has been a bit of an identity issue. I'm not earning the level of income that I used to earn, but as an entrepreneur, I'm paid in different ways—for example, I have more flexibility to volunteer at my daughter’s school or to pick her up every day. I think the hardest part of this transition is that identity issue. I'm no longer that successful individual who’s contributing to my family financially. However, my husband is super supportive—he has never cared about my reduced income. I sometimes fantasize about going back to my full-time job and making a stable income and pension, but I think a lot of entrepreneurs go through this.

Panda Mandarin Team

In your Globe and Mail article, Lost in Translation, you've expressed frustration about the lack of emphasis on integrating an international language in the Canadian school system. What is the first step you'd like to see in the Ontario education system in accommodating students from different linguistic backgrounds?

If I had a magic wand that could make some significant changes, I would love to have international languages offered as immersion languages in public schools the way French is. Since this article was published two years ago, nothing has really changed. These laws are really difficult to modify, so I know no magic wand can change laws immediately. But perhaps immediately, they can look at their funding model to see if there's a better way to integrate heritage languages, like Mandarin, into day-school curriculum. Since students would also learn with their peers in a familiar school environment, it makes a big difference with acceptance. I think is more achievable than a full immersion model and will make a huge impact on language retention and accessibility.

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