GILLETTE, Wyo. — Tingting Wofford would really like it if Joseph Crook would speak up more.
Crook is a shy kid. Wofford first met him at the end of the school year this past spring. She was teaching for two days to prepare for the fall.
Crook’s a really bright kid, Wofford said, but he keeps quiet during class.
At Campbell County High School’s open house, Crook visited Wofford with his father, JR.
“Ni hao,” Wofford said as the Crooks bashfully entered the room.
On a desk were two sets of chopsticks and a bowl of coconut candies.
“Come in and try, come on,” Wofford said. “It’s very fun, very easy.”
The younger Crook shuffled to the table and picked up a set of chopsticks. His father smiled and passed on the Chinese dining lesson.
Crook easily picked up a candy. Wofford clapped.
Just as the two were about to leave, Wofford remembered that a few months ago, Crook was learning his Chinese name and how to write it.
“Do you remember it?” Wofford asked. Before he could answer, Wofford was insisting that Crook try it right then on the spot on the dry erase board in front of an empty room.
Four days before the first day of school, Wofford was already off to an early start.
The city of Wenzhou is a town in the Chinese province of Zhejiang that is surrounded by mountains, the East China Sea and about 436 islands. According to a 2010 census review by Wenzhou Municipal Statistic Bureau, there are more than 9 million people living in Wenzhou.
Population-wise, you could fit more than 258 Gillettes inside of Wenzhou.
In fact, if you added up the population of Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana, it still wouldn’t top Wenzhou.
If Wenzhou were in the United States, it would be the largest city by 600,000 people.
Wofford moved from Wenzhou, China, to the least populated state in America four years ago on a tutor-abroad program.
“I knew the culture would be very different,” Wofford said. “The lifestyle, the weather, the food — everything.”
She arrived during the winter, so that was a shock itself.
Not long after landing in Wyoming and tutoring English-speaking students in Chinese around the state, a job opened up in Campbell County for a dual-language immersion teacher at Stocktrail Elementary.
Wofford turned out to be a perfect fit and she’s been here for four years.
When she first moved to Wyoming, she thought the barren, wide-open landscape was intimidating. Where she’s from, there’s no choice but to run into people almost every minute of every day. In Wyoming, you can drive for hundreds of miles without seeing anyone else.
As she got more accustomed to the land and branched off the highways and into communities, she realized that “some of the nicest, welcoming and friendliest people” live in Wyoming.
One of the friendly people Wofford met in the winter of 2014 was her future husband, Loyd. They met while she was rock climbing at the Campbell County Recreation Center. Loyd climbs frequently and is an instructor who helps climbers become belay certified.
Wofford experienced several firsts after moving to Wyoming. She’d never seen a gun while growing up in China.
Now, she has multiple hunting trips for whitetail deer under her belt.
“My favorite thing above all else is traveling,” she said. “I love going on adventures and exploring. I’m a big fan of the outdoors.”
Wofford has already visited 30 states in four years. Some of her favorite spots that she’s spent time at are Hawaii; Long Beach, California; Florida; and the coast of North Carolina.
Besides hunting and traveling, she’s also a huge fan of hiking, fishing, snowboarding and climbing.
“What I love about Wyoming is there is so much undeveloped land and so much space to do these outdoor activities,” she said. “I can’t imagine trying to camp in China. There would be people everywhere.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau information from 2010, Asian-Americans make up 0.8 to 1 percent of Wyoming’s population.
Because Wyoming has such a low Asian-American population, one of the five lowest in the country, it’s hard for Wofford to experience the culture of her native land in Gillette.
A few years ago she was able to visit San Francisco during Chinese New Year. She said it was refreshing to see how Chinese-Americans celebrated the holiday. She also gets to Denver and its Asian food market as much as possible.
There a few Chinese restaurants in town, she said, but the cuisine is more Americanized than she’s used to. She also can go days or weeks without running into someone who speaks her native language fluently.
But through her background in education (she just received her master’s degree in Chinese education from Michigan State University this summer), Wofford hopes to change that.
Starting this year, Wofford will be teaching four levels of Chinese at both Campbell County and Thunder Basin high schools. Classes will range anywhere from 10 to 20 students in each class.
Wofford hopes to use her new platform to inject Gillette with some of her country’s culture.
“I want to get more involved in the community, and it starts with the kids and teaching them not only the language, but the Chinese culture,” she said. “I want to help Gillette get to know China.”
Teaching the two is quite similar. There are stereotypes about learning Mandarin and Japanese, which are just two of six languages that Wofford knows. The symbols in the Chinese language look intimidating, but Wofford insists it’s easier than it looks.
“It’s just very different,” she said. “Where in Spanish you have pretty easy building blocks in the beginning and it gets tougher as you go, Chinese is almost the opposite. There is a lot to learn in the beginning, but once you get the hang of it, it only gets easier as you go.”
Wofford said that as an educator, she believes confidence is a key component in how a student excels.
“That’s my big goal. I want use my culture, my language, as a way for the students to be more cultural aware and help them be prepared for university or a job in the future,” she said.
Living in Gillette has given Wofford many firsts. This school year, she’s ready to turn the tables.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com