First in an occasional series.
The other day, 14-year-old Nathan Flath may have set the long-distance record for a Chinese take-out order.
It happened when Ning Wu looked Flath, a Quakertown Community High School freshman, directly in the eye and asked what dishes he wanted to order.
Flath hesitated, then said, "Zheng jiao," the Chinese words for steamed dumplings.
"Is that enough?" Wu asked, coaxing him to order more.
But Flath couldn't remember the Mandarin words for Beijing duck, Coca-Cola, bottles of beer, and other menu items that Wu had taught him. "You have saved lots of money," Wu said, laughing. "You spent no more than one U.S. dollar."
Actually, Flath didn't spend one cent or get any steamed dumplings, since student and teacher were 12 hours and 6,800 miles apart. When Flath logged on to a school computer in Bucks County at 10:15 a.m., Wu was sitting in a Beijing office at 10:15 p.m.
The cyberspace program, MyChinese360, is believed to be the only Chinese-language course in the United States that conducts real-time lessons via Web cam with instructors halfway around the globe.
It's also a powerful example of how schools are trying to prepare students for the global economy of the 21st century, despite a great wall hindering Chinese language instruction in the United States - a dearth of teachers.
Quakertown signed up for the program at a cost of $600 per student in September, taking its cues from the kids.
"We asked them, 'Why Chinese?' " Superintendent Lisa Andrejko said. "They go, 'There are six billion Chinese people.' They look at you like, 'Why wouldn't we want this?' They seem to be more in tune with what's going on in the world than adults are."
Flath called the class a "great opportunity," though he was still not sure for what. He noted, however, with unusual sophistication: "A large percent of the population is Chinese. That's where most of the market is."
The demand from American students to learn a Chinese language - barely a blip on the radar screen a decade ago - has exploded in tandem with the South Asian economy. Meanwhile, schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and elsewhere have struggled with the huge gap between this surge and limited numbers of qualified teachers.
Just 20 Chinese-language teachers were certified between 2006 and 2009 by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which was unable to provide an overall number.
New Jersey has 40.
"What would be the attraction," Andrejko asked, "for a Chinese-certificated teacher to come to Quakertown" rather than a big city?
Lots of districts are struggling with the new demand.
"It's really been amazing, over the last several years, the level of interest we've seen in starting Chinese-language programs," said Marty Abbott, director of education for American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The number of school programs doubled in the mid-2000s, according to data that the organization plans to release in June.
There have been other attempts at fixing the imbalance. The College Board sponsors a guest-teacher program with the Chinese government, for example. But the founders of MyChinese360 believe they have found a high-tech solution, drawing on China's large pool of trained and available teachers.
The Texas outfit, started by a businessman who worked with school districts and saw an opportunity, has 100 students in 40 schools nationwide but looks to carry out a major expansion.
Quakertown, with five students in the course, is the only district offering it in Pennsylvania.
Flath gets two 45-minute lessons a week - one from Wu and another from a different teacher in China.
For his recent class on Chinese takeout, Flath donned headphones and logged in. But a technical glitch caused a 15-minute delay.
After Wu said each vocabulary word, Flath repeated it. Then Flath used the words in sentences. And finally, the hardest part, he had to write the Chinese characters.
Wu, 24, is among the first wave of teachers hired by MyChinese360, which said nearly all had master's degrees and were certified in American teaching practices. Wu, who has never visited the United States, studied English in school. He said he had been able to switch from the more rigid learning methods of the traditional Chinese classroom to the give-and-take that American students are used to.
"In Chinese education, you have lots of exams, since there are lots of people, lots of students," Wu said.
But with American students, it's different. "We try to play games and have dialogue," he explained.
Andy Polito, a company cofounder who taught English in China, said the difference in teaching styles was among the things he had grappled with while expanding the program toward a goal of 20,000 American students by 2012, and more in other English-speaking countries. But he said face-to-face instruction through a Web cam offered advantages over other online instruction.
"Face to face with somebody, it's easier to communicate certain emotions and excitement," Polito said. "The teachers try to be very enthusiastic, animated, and try to convey excitement so that carries through digital."
On the other side of the globe, Wu is striving to put that teaching mantra to work, telling his Bucks County student that he is a quick learner and offering other positive reinforcement, punctuated frequently by "That's cool!"
The Beijing instructor grew especially animated when Flath correctly said in Mandarin, "Give me a bottle of water."
"Wow, that's fantastic," Wu said. "Totally right."