If you spoke to Benjamin K Hammer on the phone, you would think you were talking to a person who had lived in a Chinese-language environment since childhood, as he uses Mandarin’s four tones correctly.
But Hammer started learning Mandarin when he was a high school senior in San Jose, California. Since there were no Chinese-related courses at his high school in the 1990s, Hammer studied Mandarin at a community school’s night classes.
“In the United States, people are curious about Oriental culture and history, such as the culture embodied in religions, kung fu, and traditional Chinese medicine,” Hammer said.
Hammer is one of the US citizens who show great interest in Chinese culture. In addition to Mandarin, he learned kung fu from a Chinese teacher when he was a student at American University in Washington. He got his Chinese name Meng Weilong from his kung fu teacher.
“I use the same family name with my kung fu teacher, as there is a saying in China that the teacher is like your father,” Hammer said.
At American University, Hammer majored in international relations, and selected Chinese as his foreign language without any hesitation. Since then, Hammer spent more time and effort on learning Chinese than he did on his major.
“Chinese and English belong to different language families. Learning Chinese is a great challenge, but I do like the language.
“It’s rare that a Western foreigner can speak very good Chinese. I believe Chinese, rather than Spanish, can make me stand out among my peers,” he said.
Hammer received his master’s degree in Chinese classical philology at Shandong University and spent four years getting his doctorate in the same major from Peking University.
Now the 37-year-old works as a teacher at the Advanced Institute for Confucian Studies of Shandong University in Jinan. He is also the assistant editor of the English version of the Journal of Chinese Humanities, an English-language offshoot of the well-known culture and sociology journal Wen Shi Zhe, created in 1951.
Hammer spends hours each day enriching his knowledge.
His desk is covered with piles of books and papers. Two bookshelves besides his desk are stuffed with dictionaries and Chinese classical works such as The Four Books. The wall to the left of his desk is covered by a picture that shows the history of China.
“Being a teacher, you have to know your major very well, and then you have to have the ability to educate students,” Hammer said.
In his classes, Hammer discusses with students in Mandarin the translation of Chinese classical works into English.