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In Memory of Dr. Chingling Tai (1943-2023)

In Memory of Dr. Chingling Tai (1943-2023)


I write from my home on the campus of National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan, where I am studying a Chinese-language master’s degree in Taiwan Literature. Just before I moved here two years ago, Dr. Tai told me that this school was her alma mater. Hers was a very different Taipei from mine—forget Taipei 101, back then most of bustling Xinyi District would’ve been farmland. But now and then she must have admired the gentle Jingmei River flowing through green Muzha, just as I am doing from out my window now.

Many have written biographical sketches of this remarkable woman. A 2007 travel piece in St. Louis Magazine recounts her 1977 trip to the Chinese mainland she considered home, her family having been among those millions who fled the Chinese Civil War and Communist Revolution of the late 1940s. In 2014, on the occasion of her retirement, I wrote a piece for the Prep News detailing her education, teaching and activism, including her time as the first Asian-American representative for the Missouri Community Service Commission.

A recent Prep News article has gathered the reflections of faculty regarding Dr. Tai’s legacy as an educator. I would like to join these teachers in sharing some more personal reflections here; I was in her class every weekday for four years—the only teacher I’ve ever had so much time with.

My first class at SLUH was with Dr. Tai. In neat long columns of five or six sat thirty-one of us—one more than the technical maximum but we joked that overpopulation was befitting of Chinese class. She walked in briskly at the bell, set some things down on her desk and said “Nimen hao”—“Hello (to multiple people)”. I’d heard of “Ni hao” for “Hello” but knew nothing of this mysterious “men” in the middle—she wrote all three characters on the blackboard and high school began.

“This year we will go on a journey together,” she said on that first day, walking over to the second-floor windows that faced the Planetarium and Forest Park beyond. “First, I will walk us to the Science Center. Next, I will lead us into the park.” Then she turned to us. “By the end of the year, I’ll be at the zoo. Whether you follow is up to you. Some of you might still be in this room.”

From left: Noah Weber ‘14, Tom Fields ‘14, Dr. Tai Ching Ling, Tristan Finazzo ‘14 and Joe Ponzillo ‘14 at the 2014 SLUH graduation.


Her tough love was renowned and rarely let up during class time. If that rowdy room of thirty-one fifteen-year-old boys went too far, we’d find out. Her sentence quizzes required we translate short phrases she read from English into Chinese; if our attitudes had not been right, we’d groan as the sentences grew undiagrammable: “The man—the fat, happy man—asked his son to tell the—long-haired reporter about the golden—the heavy, golden—trophy he won at the—rugby match a few years ago at Christmas.”

But those who knew her best knew she had, as the Chinese saying goes, “A tongue like a knife but a heart soft like tofu” (I think she even taught us that phrase with some recognition). Many students saw that heart on the trips she led to China, which were annual or near annual in the years before I reached Oakland Avenue. In my time at SLUH, her heart came out most in the Chinese language competitions that she led us to around the city. They had become common as more St. Louis schools were setting up Mandarin programs in the early 2010s, usually with Dr. Tai’s help.

Once, when we were carting a keyboard to Clayton to sing at the St. Louis Modern Chinese School, I joked she should let me drive her car. I did not expect her to promptly toss me the keys to her Mercedes Benz. Suddenly terrified, I death-gripped the steering wheel and stayed 10 mph under the limit. And there was Dr. Tai in the passenger’s seat, gently singing along to her Whitney Houston CD. “There’s no one better than Whitney,” she said quietly.

2012 Chinese New Year Banquet with Jr. Bills and other  area high school students


At another talent show, she taught me to woo the judges by telling them during my Chinese speech that the first time I saw a Chinese gourd flute hulusi it was “Love at first sight.” As I recall, she wanted me to take the corny humor further, elaborating on how hulusi was like a girlfriend to me. “I think ‘Love at first sight’ is enough,” I replied. I practiced the new four-character idiom before serenading the crowd with my shaky rendition of “Bamboo Under the Moonlight.” To this day, when I read “Love at first sight” in Chinese I think of her acting as matchmaker between me and my gourd flute. In our more recent conversations, Dr. Tai would still ask about my hulusi. My progress in that regard has not been storied, but I managed to croak out my signature song over FaceTime a few years ago for my sole fan.

Back then we paraded around town with her and had a blast. We dragon danced at the Botanical Gardens. We played jazz and The Butterfly Lovers in front of Erin Bode for the Chinese program 50th Anniversary. My classmates and I won several showcases under her direction, which gave a few of us the chance to travel to China.

2011 SLUH trip to China


I went to China twice because of Dr. Tai. The first time, she called me at my home to tell me another classmate who had won a talent show could no longer take his reward journey. “Everything is taken care of financially, I just need to know if you have a passport,” she said. The second time, she personally covered most of my costs. That second trip was a homestay exchange at the Nanjing Foreign Language School with three other students, the trip on which my host father gave me the Chinese name I still use, Weining. It also included Dr. Tai’s legendary 36-hour visit to Nanjing; on one weekend she flew in from St. Louis, held a meeting with the school administration, treated us to a fabulous vegetarian banquet at Nanjing’s famous Jiming Temple, and then flew out of town to teach on Monday. Such things felt nearly normal with her.

There are not many high schools in America that boast a library room filled with precious Chinese artwork. Indeed, there are relatively few high schools in America with Chinese programs at all, let alone with roots as deep as the one at SLUH. I am pleased, if not surprised, to hear of the new Dr. Chingling Tai Fund for Advanced Chinese Language and Culture Studies that Dr. Tai has left behind. And I trust that as the next SLUH generation of Mandarin students takes advantage of that fund, they will remember that these opportunities are not random.

Meanwhile, the Jingmei River rolls on outside my window. You said we’d go on a journey together, but who knew.