By Heather Rosen
Original publication was printed in the Neighbours Of Lawrence Park North Magazine
With a population of over 1.3 billion and a burgeoning middle class, China is fast becoming one of the world’s largest economies, and is now a popular destination for tourists. It’s no surprise that a growing number of parents – including many who are not of Chinese heritage themselves – are eager for their children to learn Mandarin so that they can take advantage of the multitude of business, educational and cultural opportunities now available to them.
Panda Mandarin Language Programs, a Lawrence Park-based, four-year-old company that offers Mandarin language classes to children, is designed to meet that need. Started by Yollanda Zhang, who taught math and physics in the Toronto District School Board for a number of years, this language school focuses on teaching children ranging from babies to age 12.
Yollanda says that roughly 50 per cent of parents enroll their children in Mandarin classes as an after-school heritage language class, while the other half, who are not of Chinese descent, feel the language will give their kids a ‘leg up’ in the business world of tomorrow. The latter group, she states, is growing, with parents from diverse cultures choosing to register their children for lessons.
Mandarin classes are held at various locations throughout Toronto, including Armour Heights Community Centre, Fairlawn Avenue Church, John Wanless Junior Public School and Montcrest School (near The Danforth). This October, they recently expanded to the Frankland Community Centre, also along The Danforth. She also works with local schools seeking expertise in teaching Mandarin, recently forging a partnership with Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School.
The language courses are described as
"fun, engaging, and authentic with a focus on practical applications of Mandarin”.
Classes are kept to no more than 10 By Heather Rosen Photos by Storey Wilkins Photography | Family photos submitted by Yollanda Zhang Yollanda Zhang: students in an effort to maximize in-class practice and engagement. Instructors also provide additional content such as recordings of lessons for use between classes to complement and enhance lesson plans, and to provide support to non-native speakers worried about not being able to help their children with Mandarin. As of October, there were roughly 150 students studying the language at various levels and locations around Toronto.
Yollanda promotes the many benefits of language learning, believing,
"the more languages we know, the more of the world we will have access to.” She adds: "Learning a new language is an important part of brain development in children. It also teaches them persistence and to be receptive to different people and cultures.”
Although Panda Mandarin specializes in children’s classes, the company also offers summer camps, private tutoring, adult Mandarin classes and corporate classes. Yollanda encourages anyone interested in exploring the possibilities Mandarin has to offer to sign up for a free trial class.
Born in Harbin, China, and raised by her grandmother for the first three-and-a-half years of her life, Yollanda came to Canada at age 10 with her parents, who were both highly educated professionals. She later attended the University of Waterloo, where she studied engineering, then went on to work for General Electric in the Commercial Leadership Programs.
Yollanda says her transition from engineer to teacher to entrepreneur was fuelled by both her life experience and an interest in teaching – as well as a strong desire to provide a strong cultural framework for her daughter.
"I wanted to help my child stay connected to her heritage while living in a community without many Chinese people,” she states.
Another brainchild of this passionate entrepreneur is a new program called Girl. Strong. This unique, year-long program designed to empower girls was officially launched through Panda Mandarin in late September of this year. It was inspired by the life of Yollanda’s grandmother, Kang Zhi-Min, who passed away in March 2018. Her grandmother had endured many challenges in China, including an early marriage, a lack of education and few opportunities for advancement. Although she lacked confidence in her own abilities, she was determined to learn how to read and write. To fulfill this dream, she began attending night school after long workdays at a yarn factory.
Yollanda speaks of her grandmother with pride, and wants to make sure her own daughter and many others like her are better able to stand up to gender-based biases and stereotypes, gain self-confidence, and resist societal pressures to self-silence and self-censor, including in their career aspirations. She says that early in life, girls often start to form negative opinions of their own intelligence compared to boys, and particularly toward pursuing careers in math and science.
"Research shows that girls often lose faith in their academic abilities as early as age six,” says Yollanda. "We want this program to confirm and support their self-confidence, and to encourage them to explore all the options available to them in their lives and careers. I did this for my daughter, Caitlyn, as well, who is now six years old.”
The core components of Girl. Strong. focus on five key areas: public speaking and self-confidence; positive mindset and habits; entrepreneurship and global citizenship; STEAM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Art/Math); and fostering strong mother-daughter relationships, including a week-end retreat. Other components designed to give the girls more exposure include coding, self-defence, guest speakers, and workplace tours.
In an effort to commemorate both her grandmother’s hardships and give back to the community, she has created a Girl. Strong. Scholarship Fund and is sponsoring two girls who hail from challenging communities so that they can benefit from the Girl.Strong. program. Two other femaleowned companies – Continuum Wellness in Lawrence Park and Palettera in Markham – have also donated to the scholarship fund. The company’s Mandarin and Girl. Strong. programs have been featured in stories on CBC, HuffPost (Canada) and The Globe and Mail.
Yollanda has lived in Lawrence Park North with her husband, Bryan, and daughter Caitlyn for nine years. The couple first met in university as engineering students and they married in 2006, before settling in Lawrence Park in 2009.
Bryan is a Director at Travelers Insurance and is a huge hockey fan who follows the Habs. Caitlyn enjoys Mandarin, drawing, swimming, Taekwondo, tennis, skating, and skiing, a more recent pursuit.
In addition to her work with Girl.Strong. and Panda Mandarin, Yollanda keeps busy with charity work. She is on the Board of Directors for the nonprofit Yee Hong Foundation, an organization that supports geriatric care for Chinese seniors in the GTA. She recently raised funds to put her late grandmother’s name on the "Unconditional Love Quilt” to honour her memory and have a place to visit her grandmother in Toronto.
She has also helped raised funds for the World Wildlife Fund through Girl. Strong.’s mandate to encourage girls to choose a charity and make a difference in the world. A recent fundraiser involved putting up a lemonade stand; the funds raised were matched by a Lawrence Park hair salon.
The family also enjoys travel; past trips have included Argentina, Punta Cana, a Disney Cruise and camping, and they often join friends on annual vacations.
Yollanda says she loves her life in Lawrence Park with its parks and amenities. The sense of community, though, is what she finds most extraordinary.
"It’s like a village,” she says. “They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to raise a business. This community has been highly supportive of us and Panda Mandarin, especially local schools where we have made inroads in offering Mandarin as a second language.”