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Meet Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero Li-Rong Lilly Cheng

Photo by Ron Stein

Portait photo of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero Li-Rong Lilly Cheng, April, 2016

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero Li-Rong "Lilly" Cheng is a character of boundless enthusiasm in the San Diego Asian community. She's the impetus for the Confucius Institute based out of San Diego State University, where she's also a professor of speech language pathology. "We have about 6,000 languages in the world. Every one of them excites me," she says. Cheng is a native of China, and she works hard to help people understand perspectives foreign to them — to bridge gaps that are very wide, or just unseen. That's why she started the institute in San Diego.

The biggest hurdle in the Confucius Institute's creation, according to Cheng, was educating administrators on who Confucius was.

"People thought Confucianism was a religion," Cheng says. And though Confucianism is often taught as a religion, and deemed such by many, that's not the focus of this institute. Cheng went on, "He was just like Socrates. He was an educator, a writer."

Similar to the Goethe Institute of Germany, the Institute's goal is to create cross-cultural experiences between citizens of the United States and China. There's at least one Confucius Institute in every U.S. state, according to Cheng. She's responsible for the one at SDSU.

A crucial way Cheng achieves these cross-cultural experiences is through teacher travel abroad programs. She's taken as many as 60 to 70 groups of teachers of all backgrounds and subjects to China to facilitate cultural immersion.

"That’s the type of training I feel is the most effective. Because they see, they smell, they eat, they touch, they hear... They then know the country with more than a quarter of the human population, and how they live, struggle, survive."

Cheng finds this immersive and intimate experience impacts the teachers' approach and helps them find new ways to share ideas with their students — often inspired on the streets of Chinese cities.

Through this and similar programs through the institute, Cheng says "countless schools are involved with us in one way or another." But she's never needed the Institute to do this — and it's technically not a part of her career work in speech pathology. "I started doing this long before the Confucius Institute. What I'm doing is what I'm doing. It’s my personal mission."

In response to her nomination, Cheng said, "If the collective voice of Asian Americans could be heard through someone like me, that is a great honor. To be able to tell our story was an honor."

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero Li-Rong Lilly Cheng

See past Asian Pacific American Heritage Month honorees here.

Meet fellow 2016 honoree Huma Ahmed-Ghosh.

Nominate your hero by filling out this form.
Questions or comments on this story can be directed to Nate John at njohn@kpbs.org.

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