From Minnesota to Taiwan: What the Open School Opened up for me

From Minnesota to Taiwan: What the Open School opened up for me

Karen Steffen Chung

December 2021

Back in 10th grade at Central High in 1970, I was deeply involved with the question of how to improve public education, and did projects on it for English class. When I heard about plans to found an Open School in Fall 1971, I put my application in right away. I followed up by pitching in during the summer to help fix up the repurposed factory building where the school would be. The days sizzled with energy and excitement as the staff and volunteers discussed how each student would be able to learn what they were most passionate about, at their own pace.

One day, finally, an envelope with the Open School’s return address arrived. I took a deep breath.

Not accepted.

Jaw drops. After rolling on all that white latex paint and nailing all those bookshelves together…I saw that admissions seemed to have nothing to do with how many volunteer hours you put in to help them get started.

It turned out that the new school was trying hard to admit a diverse student population – an admirable goal, no argument on that one – and just way too many people from my school district in my demographic (read: white) had applied, so lots couldn’t get in for that reason alone.

I eventually had to come to terms with the outcome. Reluctantly, I started fall 1971 back at Central. That year they instituted a lot of changes, with good intentions. They were trying out a system of “modules” intended to provide the students with more varied class choices. And I did get some very good classes, including junior trigonometry and introduction to computer programming, a pretty cutting-edge class at the time. But under the new system, still very much in “beta”, some popular classes ended up too full, and you were often randomly relegated to some other course that happened to be available in the same time slot. Which meant I was in a bunch of classes I didn’t sign up for and simply wasn’t interested in. I probably would have gotten a better outcome under the age-old “inflexible” system.

I wasn’t about to “waste” precious time on classes I really wasn’t into, when there were others I was anxious to take. So I just started going to the classes I originally wanted, printed-out schedule be damned.

I got called into the guidance counselor’s office. “What kind of chaos would we have here if everybody ignored their schedule and just walked into the classes they felt like?” I was asked, kindly but firmly.  “People would probably get the education they wanted,” I replied.

It was at this point that something in me snapped. I made an appointment to meet with Wayne Jennings, principal of the new Open School.

“I see the Open School at present doesn’t offer any classes in German,” I began, after mentioning my disappointment at not getting in. “I speak German,” I continued, feeling warm gratitude to my father for his home language training and to Central Lutheran School for their TV German lessons with Frau Oplesch. “So, I could teach German classes here…for free…if admitted.” Wayne took a few seconds to think, then said “OK”. The rest is history. I started teaching three different German classes a week my first year, in addition to taking courses as a student. A win-win arrangement by any definition, I would say. And talk about “learning by doing”!

Many years later, I would cite this experience to my students as an example of how, when it comes to your education, you gotta do whatever it takes to get what you want and need, by hook or crook. A missed opportunity seldom comes back to knock a second time. That is the first and probably one of the most important lessons I learned from the Open School.

I ended up rejoining some of my former Central teachers at the Open School, like Dave Evertz (school paper) and my former homeroom teacher Dianne Bjornson, now with her new last name, Damer. I had started taking a Spanish class at Central, and continued it with Dianne, who also became my mentor, in addition to my official advisor, Karen Lind. I also ended up with several of the same classmates, like Ann Faltesek, Michelle McMonigal, and Becky Armstrong. So there was plenty of overlap with my Central life, but with the difference that we were now all taking off in our own directions, without hall bells clanging in our ears, or metal detectors at the entrances – or printed-out schedules you were not allowed to deviate from.

I took classes in French, Indian Studies, American literature, and creative writing, among many others. I remember trying to see moths on tree trunks depicted on an orange monotone computer monitor, an exercise designed to show how moths with darker-colored wings were being selected due to being less visible to predators on trees covered with grimy industrial pollution. I was Mrs. Frank in a performance of The Diary of Anne Frank, played Renaissance music in a recorder ensemble, and tried out modern dance. I connected with a little girl named Jennifer with long curly red hair, sometimes helping her with her homework, but mostly just taking on a role of “big sister” and spending time with her most school days.

As the school’s German teacher, I participated in school district faculty meetings, and at one, I gave a report on a new German textbook I’d been asked to review. Everybody present, including my former German teacher from Wilson Junior High, Miss Nareau, and the famous TV Spanish teacher “Don Miguel” Howard Hathaway, had an amused look on their face hearing a detailed textbook review from a 16-year-old. But they accepted me in their ranks, and I got to see some of the inner workings of curriculum development at the district level, and watch faculty interactions firsthand.

The big highlight of my first year, beyond being a full-fledged German teacher, was joining the Mexico trip. I guess partly in view of my teaching work, Dianne arranged for me to go as an “assistant”, with the school covering my expenses. It was to be my first trip outside the US. From that seemingly interminable, meandering Greyhound bus ride down, to meeting my Mexican sister Rocío and her family, to sort-of playing the mandolin in her father’s folk orchestra at Centro Escolar, the Puebla trip was an exotic dream come true in many ways. I loved the friendliness of the people, the food, and learned a heck of a lot of Spanish, really fast, mainly thanks to dear Rocío. Her coming to stay with us for a month was probably eye-opening for her as well in many ways. We’re still in touch over Facebook, where we sometimes chat and exchange photos of our grandkids.

My brother-in-law once suggested to me that I shouldn’t just study garden-variety Western European languages like German and French, but should stretch myself more with ones like Russian and Chinese. So I took Russian in summer 1971 at the Twin City Institute for Talented Youth, held on the Macalester campus. While I enjoyed it a lot, it wasn’t really my thing – I still felt stuck in Indo-European.

The next year, in the wake of Nixon’s recent visit to Beijing with the US ping-pong delegation, the first official contact between the US and the PRC since its founding in 1949, TCITY offered a course in Chinese Studies for the first time ever, and I applied. I hadn’t even known that China was Communist before then. The course soon took care of that. It covered all aspects of China and Chinese culture, history, politics, philosophy, music, food, and a bit of the language as well.

I soon realized that I had found “my language.” It felt liberating not having to bother with conjugations, declensions, genders, articles, plurals, and tense, as I’d had to do for the European languages I’d studied. I was fascinated by the use of lexical tone to distinguish meanings in Chinese, and its unique and exquisite writing system. Chinese grammar had the impeccable structure of a Bach fugue. I hoped to continue learning the language in the coming school year.

One of my TCITY teachers that summer was a TA for Chinese classes at the University of Minnesota, and when I asked if I could sit in on her classes, she said OK. I eventually also got permission from the head professor to audit. So in my second year at the Open School, I continued teaching German, and now also Spanish, and I did take some classes in-house, but I also started auditing courses at the University of Minnesota, first and foremost, first year Chinese.

I’d always loved my language classes, but none thrilled me like this one. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d ever actually be able to speak Chinese – it was so different from the European languages I’d studied, and there were almost no cognates, like: Eng. paper, Ger. Papier, Fr. papier,  Sp. papel…to fall back on – in Chinese it’s zhǐ 紙! I had now entered a whole new world of previously unimagined wonders, from which there was no turning back. I involved myself in anything and everything China-related, almost like a religion.

I also sat in on an intro to linguistics, freshman psych, intro to French literature, and 19th century Spanish drama at the U of M. I followed up on my interest in psychology working on weekends as a phone volunteer at Youth Emergency Service. I attended university folk dancing in front of Coffman Union on Tuesday evenings, enjoying both the exercise and meeting people from around the world.  I used both English and Spanish to tutor a little Mexican-American boy living in St. Paul’s West Side district in reading skills, with Migrant Tutorial. I got real-life practice in Chinese speaking and listening through my part-time waitress work at the Kwong Tung Noodle Factory restaurant on the West Bank. And I did an internship at the International Institute, teaching English to foreigners. I remember the “high” that lasted long after an evening of teaching there, and thinking this is what I’d like to do with my life.

After graduating from the Open School in 1973, I spent a year in Hamburg as an exchange student with Youth for Understanding, partly to search for my roots, and also to try and further improve and update my German. I already spoke the language fairly well, and was placed with a wonderful host family, but I experienced plenty of culture shock. For example: in Germany, you don’t call just anybody a “friend” – people tend to have one close friend, which may take up to a year to find and cultivate; most other people are just “acquaintances”. I learned and grew a lot that year and am deeply grateful for that experience even now.

Then it was back to the University of Minnesota, where I majored in Chinese. I was able to finish my BA in two years, thanks to the CLEP exams, and by testing out of a lot of subjects like German, Spanish and linguistics. But the biggest boost came from my mentor, Mr. Na, who let me take 3rd and 4th year Chinese and other required courses concurrently. I hung around with friends from Taiwan and Hong Kong who helped me a lot with my Chinese. One summer I audited a phonetics course at the U of M, a subject I later ended up teaching, and another I spent in Montreal trying, not very successfully, to work on my French.

After finishing at the U, I enrolled in a Masters program in Chinese literature and linguistics at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, Taiwan. I spent summer break working in a hostess bar in Hong Kong to improve my Cantonese. After three semesters, I left Taiwan and traveled around South East Asia, promptly getting robbed in my hotel room on my first night in Bangkok. Fortunately I was able to stay with the family of a U of M Thai friend until my father was able to wire funds for me to continue on traveling to Malaysia and Singapore. I ended up heading back to Hong Kong, where I knew I could find work to pay for my trip home. I did odd jobs and waitressed in a British-style pub – until the owner got nervous about foreigners without work permits. Late that summer, after a stop in Taiwan to ship my books and stuff home, I returned to the US.

I entered Princeton’s PhD program in East Asian Studies in fall 1978, and spent a semester as a visiting student in Chinese music at Harvard. However, since my advisor at Princeton didn’t himself have a PhD, he was unable to supervise a dissertation, so I left Princeton with just a Master’s. I met a fellow server, Hwa, from Taiwan in a Chinese restaurant in Princeton, got married, and we had a son, Eric. We moved to Syracuse, where Hwa started work on a PhD. Due to department politics in which foreign students were about to be sacrificed, he was unable to finish his degree. I got a job teaching Chinese at the University of Hawaii at Manoa as a visiting instructor, and we all moved there for a year. I learned a lot about teaching through trial, error, and student feedback. I very much appreciated the linguistics and Burmese classes I was able to take on the side for free as a UH faculty member. I survived one actual and a second threatened faculty strike with job intact.

I loved living in Honolulu, but Hwa did not, and my contract wasn’t renewed, so we moved to Taiwan in July 1984. I had an English editing and translation job lined up before arriving in Taipei, and my in-laws found us an apartment in the building next to theirs and did lots to help us get settled. Our daughter Nadia was born in 1985, and soon after, we also took in a nephew, Shan, from the mainland to grow up with our kids. My in-laws had left a son behind in China when they fled the mainland in 1949, and they wanted their grandson to get a good education in Taiwan (link to story below).

I did editing, writing, and Chinese-to-English translation for about two years at a government-run academic research institute, then another three at Taiwan’s Government Information Office, where I helped translate former President Chiang Ching-kuo’s public will upon his death in 1988, along with the inaugural speech of his successor, Lee Teng-hui.

Around this time a neighbor friend began encouraging me to apply to the foreign language department of National Taiwan University, where she herself had been teaching. I hesitated, since I only had a Master’s degree at that point, but somehow, miraculously, I got in. After years of working in government bureaucracies, teaching at Taiwan’s “Harvard” was like landing in heaven. I loved my students and teaching, and audited lots of classes at NTU as well, like Classical Chinese, native flora of Taiwan, Latin, and digital speech processing. On the side I taught English over the radio and Internet for a company called Ivy English. I finished my PhD in Chinese linguistics at Leiden University in the Netherlands, mostly remotely, in 2004, and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2006.

I often took the kids back to Minnesota during the summers so we could all visit family and they could keep up their English. After my folks passed away, I started joining summer language courses or choral singing camps in places like South Africa and the Republic of Georgia, or sometimes just joined tour groups to places like Athens or Angkor Wat, often with my daughter and/or mother-in-law in tow.

In the course of teaching classes like freshman English, English aural-oral training, and phonetics, I developed a new method for more efficient language learning and improving pronunciation called “the Echo Method”. It involves use of short-term auditory memory, called “echoic memory”. Instead of the conventional “listen-and-repeat” method, you 1. listen to a short phrase, 2. leave a pause where you can “hear” the phrase “repeated” in your brain with echoic memory, and 3. then you repeat. When you repeat a phrase in this way, with the “echo” pause built-in, your pronunciation will usually be extremely accurate, close to native-like, since your brain has already internalized the phrase with echoic memory. I explain and demonstrate the echo method in a TEDx talk in Chinese, with English subtitles – link below. (At last count it had received over 1.3 million views!)

In 2012, the university offered faculty the chance to have their courses video recorded and offered online under their Open Course Ware program. Reminding myself that I was not getting any younger, I took the plunge with my Introduction to Phonetics course. The course has consistently ranked among the top five most popular OCW courses at our university, with over 1.2 million views as of this writing.

I retired from NTU after 30 years of teaching in February 2021. I still teach one class part-time and continue to write articles in Chinese on English learning for a local magazine called English Island. And I’ve started working a bit on my French again by listening to Radio France and watching Netflix’s Dix Pour Cent (“Call My Agent!”) with the French subtitles on.

Eric and Nadia now live in Santa Clara and Minneapolis, respectively, and each has given us a beautiful grandchild. Nephew Shan works for Toyota and lives in Taoyuan, about an hour from Taipei, with his lovely wife and daughter. I am now working on a language-teaching startup with my former student and TA, Melissa Hsiung (check out her YouTube channel!). I still live in the same beautiful wooded hilltop community just outside Taipei, and hike whenever I can. Somehow, I feel as busy as ever and not retired at all.

Many good things in my life were “opened up” through my two years at the Open School. My heart is full. I have been very blessed.



Related links:

Karen’s TEDx talk on better language learning with the “Echo Method”
(in Chinese with English subtitles):


Karen’s online Introduction to Phonetics course
(taught in a mixture of Chinese and English):


Karen’s homepage:


How my nephew from China ended up living with us:


English pronunciation with Melissa Hsiung (in Chinese):


Remembering Kwong Tung (Canton) Noodle Factory:


Don Miguel Remembered