Successful Alumni

Alumna reunites with student from China teaching experience

Bethine Ellie and Pan Qunying
Bethine Ellie and Pan Qunying

It had been 20 years and the span of an ocean since UW-Eau Claire alumna Bethine (Hagen) Ellie had seen her former student, Pan Qunying. On a recent Sunday in July, time and distance became irrelevant as they reunited at Ellie's alma mater.

Ellie, of Weston, and Qunying, of Zhuhai, China, picked up exactly where they had left off, walking arm in arm, laughing and conversing happily — and fluently — in English.

After receiving her undergraduate degree in English and journalism at UW-Eau Claire in 1990, Ellie taught English as a second language in the industrial city of Siping City, Jilin Province, in northeast China. Qunying was an English major at Siping Teacher's College (now known as Jilin Normal University), taking oral English, one of the five courses Ellie taught from 1990-92. Ellie was 22 and Qunying was 19 at the time.

Qunying went on to become a teacher herself. She works at Jinan University-Zhuhai Campus in China, teaching English to students from a variety of majors. She happened to be in Eau Claire this summer with a faculty contingent participating in an intensive English program, hosted by UW-Eau Claire's Center for International Education. Since 1989, Jinan University has sent instructors to work on their academic English and research skills for one month each summer.

"Beth was my first foreign teacher," Qunying said. "I still have the notebook I used for her class. She was the one who helped me get my English name, 'Michelle,' and taught me how to speak in English."

Qunying had studied English during six years of middle school and high school language courses but had rarely spoken it up to that point.

"She was the first to teach me how to communicate with people in English," Qunying said. "I loved her class and I learned so much from her."

Ellie had an interest in Chinese cooking, and Qunying volunteered to teach her how to prepare some traditional dishes. On Sundays, the two would visit the market and buy ingredients, then take them back to Ellie's apartment.

"What you accomplish in the kitchen is not the most important thing," said Ellie, who kept a recipe book of the dishes they prepared, with some ingredients spelled phonetically to help her remember. "Building your relationship as you work together is more important. The real joy was spending time together shopping, cooking and eating. The great food was just a side benefit."

From this, Qunying improved her conversational English and Ellie her Chinese. They also learned much about each other's cultures. Ellie appreciated the value of being a learner as well as a teacher and recalled the traditions and folklore she came to know through her students. Qunying recalled a class visit to Ellie's apartment at Christmastime, where they could observe her decorations and learn more about American traditions and her religious beliefs.

When one of her graduates was getting married, Ellie and many of her students traveled to celebrate the occasion. The wedding was close to Qunying's hometown of Tonghua, so she showed Ellie around, took her to her parents' home and introduced her to her family.

While Ellie greatly enjoyed her time in China, she was having a long-distance relationship with David Ellie, a UW-Eau Claire alumnus, that had grown serious. They realized the gap was too much after he visited her in China for nearly a month.

"I decided it was time to come home and be with the man I loved," Ellie said. "It was very sad to leave all these wonderful people."

She returned and they married, residing in Eau Claire for 15 years. Ellie made a point to stay in touch with some of her former students, including Qunying. At the time, the best means of contact was postal mail, but with the effort of mailing letters, busy schedules and the passing of time, the correspondence waned or became sporadic with all but Qunying.

Airmail letters continued back and forth, with Qunying providing updates on her life, teaching job and the status of Ellie's former students as they would graduate, get jobs and marry; and Ellie sharing news of her pursuits in editing and publishing, her move into a new house, and the birth of her children, Rachel and Maddie, now 13 and 11. Both saved their letters, cards and gifts — a precious history of each other's lives and their lasting cross-continental friendship. Each letter appears thoughtfully handwritten, in beautiful penmanship, and many include a photo or two. In one, Qunying recalls a happy dream where she traveled to meet the Ellies. The messages are signed with such closings as "Sincerely yours," "Yours ever" and "Friends forever."

"Then a day came when we both had e-mail," Ellie said. "Suddenly we were exchanging pictures in a flash. No more waiting 10 to 14 days. When Michelle e-mailed me this spring and asked if I had ever heard of UW-Eau Claire, I almost fell out of my chair.

"I've always hoped to return to China and see these wonderful friends again," she said. "I never expected that Michelle would come to my old hometown."

They had a joyful reunion during which Ellie introduced her family and the friends shared stories about their time together in China. Later in the month, Ellie returned to campus and brought Michelle to her home in Weston, where they stayed up long into the night catching up and going over the letters and photos Ellie had kept through the years.

"Beth is such a loyal and responsive friend," Qunying said. "She is often the one who sends greetings and cards for birthdays and festivals first, the one who writes to share her life stories from time to time, and the one who responds quickly whenever I write to her."

While the two are unsure if and when another opportunity to see each other will occur, they felt they made the most of the wonderful coincidence that brought them back together if only for a short time. They plan to continue their correspondence indefinitely.

"My daughter is going to be 3 years old," Qunying said. "I hope the friendship between the mothers will extend to the children."

The experience and their story has sparked an interest in traveling abroad for Ellie's daughter Rachel, in particular.

Ellie recently obtained her master of arts degree in English with an emphasis in literacy, technology and professional writing from Northern Arizona University. She is the accreditation and evaluation coordinator at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau.

"I feel like I've come full circle, returning to higher education full time for the first time since living in China," she said.

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