How a Chinese-American student became the face of Hebrew fluency at UCLA.
I had been working on my Hebrew homework one day at Hillel when I heard someone speaking fluent Hebrew beside me. I turned my head and saw a surprising face behind the voice; it was none other than Martinluther Chan, a Chinese-American graduate student at UCLA who is well known within the Jewish circle for his astounding proficiency in Hebrew.
Chan, who goes by the Hebrew name “Matan,” underwent a less than typical path to where he is now, starting with moving to California from Hong Kong when he was two years old. Coming from a devoutly religious family, Chan went to Christian school until the fifth grade, then was homeschooled until he entered community college at the age of 13.
Describing his experience at East LA College as just a young adolescent, Chan said, “It was very awkward. People would always ask how old you are, and you would have to explain, but overall you have to do the work like everyone else, so you don’t get any special treatment.”
At 16, Chan was accepted to UCLA as an English major, and an entirely new chapter of his life began.” It was really scary, and I felt out of place and isolated,” Chan said of his first impression of beginning undergrad. “Once I came here, no one asked me how old I was, ever, so that was better.”
The first class on his schedule was Elementary Hebrew, a year-long course taught by Professor Nancy Ezer. “I grew up reading the Bible, so I wanted to read it in the original language,” Chan said. As he went on to illustrate, the road to speaking Hebrew was not without a few bumps. “I was trembling and I felt out of place because I felt that I was very obviously not Jewish, and I thought everyone in the class was Jewish.”
He detailed an experience doing one of many online homework assignments required for the class, saying, “I spent two hours doing a drill with the alphabet, struggling to find the keys. After finally finishing it, I was about to submit it, and then the whole page erased. Then I cried and said I was going to drop the class because it was too much, but somehow I stayed. But it was still really hard because there was so much grammar and it was so difficult!”
As he continued to push through the quarter, Chan’s goals evolved from simply wanting to read the Bible, to wanting to to speak the language and conversing in Hebrew with other people, explaining, “I felt that if I didn’t continue, all my work would be wasted. My Hebrew is better than my Chinese now.”
Chan devoted his three years of undergrad taking all the Hebrew classes offered at UCLA. One of those was Hebrew Song and Video, a class taught also by Professor Ezer, which expanded his interest beyond the language to the people who speak it. “It definitely made me a lot more interested in Jewish culture,” he said, “but growing up Christian, we were pro-Israel anyway.” A friend from class first invited Chan to Hillel Shabbat services while he as still an undergraduate student, a situation in which he again “felt out of place.”
“I wore the kippa, but that made me feel even more awkward. I felt like an obvious impostor,” he admitted. Now, though, Chan enjoys going to Shabbat services regularly for the good food and company, as well as the population of Hebrew speakers.
His parents’ reaction to him attending Shabbat services was at first one of confusion, and as Chan explained, “They thought I wanted to convert to Judaism, and I told them that I’m just interested in Jewish culture.”
Chan was able to explore his new interest in Jewish culture by visiting Israel twice, once during the summer of 2013 as part of a study-abroad program, and again last summer to attend a friend’s wedding on a kibbutz. Speaking about his first experience in the Holy Land, Chan said, “I liked it, but I was in East Jerusalem so most people spoke Arabic, and they hate Hebrew-speakers. People yelled at me for speaking at them in Hebrew.” Nevertheless, Chan believed that “it was very powerful being in Jerusalem, especially touching the Kotel.”
“I felt very attached to the place afterwards and I really marveled at the miracle of the modern establishment of Israel because Jews who were dispersed throughout the world now had a chance to come back to these places and worship, and a language that was once dead is now spoken by millions of people. It’s truly a modern-day miracle, and I got to be a part of that,” he recalled.
Now, at the age of 20, Chan is in his second year of graduate school at the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. By the referral of Professor Ezer, he will be teaching a course over the summer called Elementary Hebrew Intensive, which condenses the entire first year of Hebrew into eight weeks. However, his first time teaching the course last summer was uncomfortable.
“I went to the classroom, and there were 10 students staring at me incredulously…I think they were surprised a Chinese student would teach Hebrew,” he explained. “I had to teach the alphabet, but I started to mess up, and then they corrected me. I felt like I wasn’t capable of teaching them, and I’m sure they felt the same way.”
Nevertheless, Chan persisted and soon proved his merit to his students, many of whom continue to spread the word about his excellence as a teacher. In regards to teaching at such a young age, Chan said, “Sometimes I’m terrified, and embarrassed, but ultimately I really love Hebrew, and I want to share that love with other people.”
According to Chan, part of what kept him going was the instruction and inspiration he received from Professor Ezer, of whom he spoke fondly. “She really knows how to teach, and now I wish that they taught every language the way she teaches Hebrew.”
Professor Ezer had some words of praise to share about her former student, as well, calling him “bubbly,” “committed” and “excited.” “What impressed me was that right away he was engaged and determined to do well and control the material,” she said.
“He was very generous,” she continued, explaining how Chan would type up his notes and email them with Professor Ezer to share with the class. During his first year, Chan told her that he wanted to change his path completely and pursue a graduate degree in Hebrew. “It was really a turning point in his career and his life,” she said with pride. “It was more than just a lesson for him…he really made it personal, and he internalized the language and found another avenue of communication.”
As a graduate student working towards a career as a professor of Hebrew, his generosity is still evident. Despite taking classes and working as a teaching assistant, Chan finds time to meet with students every week to help them with their Hebrew studies. He and Hillel’s Israel fellow, Lipaz Ela, currently hold a Hebrew conversation group in Hillel every Friday at 1:00 pm for students of all Hebrew levels to meet other Hebrew speakers, practice their Hebrew skills and just hang out.
“At first it was very slow and I was afraid that nobody would be interested in coming. However, starting this quarter, Baruch Hashem, we have eight to 10 people coming routinely, “ he said enthusiastically.
While Chan believed that he “would not survive the first quarter” of Hebrew, his hard work and perseverance allowed him to discover his passion, which he intends to spread to others. His message to those taking Hebrew is the following: “Hang in there. You’ll survive and it is definitely possible to learn this language. Once you learn it, it’s very enriching.”