At this stage in his life and career, Larry Herzberg is 61 years old and stands five-feet-ten. He keeps a Barbie car, a dollhouse and plastic vegetables in his office and alternates wearing a kimono and a Chinese silk robe to class every day. He knows eight languages, counting English, and he knows that the Chinese words zheixie pianyisound like “J.C. Penney” and mean “These things are cheap.” He is Jewish, loves the Chinese language, loves the Japanese language. He has played violin with everyone from Dolly Parton to Itzhak Perlman, and he’s read Dante in the Italian. Two years ago, he wrote a book about his cat.
Luke Adams remembers his first encounter with Herzberg; he was a high school student on a campus visit when he walked into an introductory Chinese class: “I was immediately greeted by a frizzy-haired, self-proclaimed Gene Wilder look-alike. He handed me the papers for the day and showed me a seat,” said Adams, who sat through the rest of the class, absorbing Herzberg’s passion for the language. “I always had an interest in taking Chinese, but interests don’t tend to travel far without motivation,” he said. Attending his class, I found my motivation “I wanted to study Chinese, and I wanted Larry to teach me.”
Adams wrote that recollection as part of his nomination letter for Herzberg—the father of Chinese and Japanese language studies at Calvin—to receive the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching: the highest honor that Calvin College bestows on a faculty member.
“No one is more deserving of such public recognition of his accomplishment and his contributions to this institution,” wrote Calvin history professor Daniel Bays in his nomination for the award. “Over the last two decades, Larry has singlehandedly built a solid foundation for Asian studies languages.” Also, Bays said: “He gives all of himself to the students, and it’s clear that they love him.”
Former student Aaron Delgaty shared why: “To be taught by Larry is to become confident in one’s ability to learn.”
Herzberg says his teaching success is all about motivation: “If you love what you do, you’ll never have to work another day in your life,” he said.
Herzberg was born at Chicago’s Lying-in Hospital and grew up on that city’s North Shore. His father was one of the last German Jews to escape the Nazis, and his mother was a Russian Jew from a family that escaped the pogroms. “Jewish mothers think their children can do no wrong, and my mother was typical,” he said. “She was so proud.”
When he was born, his mother’s violin teacher decreed, “He will be a violinist,” so from the age of 10, Herzberg studied that instrument. He served as the concertmaster at his high school, New Trier, which provided him with a “fabulous education.” He started studying history in 1967 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and finished his BA, in English, in 1972 at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. At that point, unsure what to do next, Herzberg got an offer to be the Assistant Concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony.
He took the gig and resumed studying fulltime. “I took a full load of classes for five years at Vanderbilt University, non-degreed, just taking what I wanted to take, which was language and literature: German, Italian, Russian and Chinese,” Herzberg said. “Most students don’t have that luxury. I first studied languages to read Don Quixote in the original, to read Chekhov’s stories in the original Russian … to read The Inferno in Italian.”
For a while, Herzberg led a double life as a student and symphony musician, and then he got yet another offer: “The (recording) studios weren’t exactly happy with their violin section for their recordings, so when I got to town they were anxious to try out the new kid on the block,” he said.
So, Herzberg became a Nashville session musician, providing violin backing for Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Loretta Lynn, Rod Stewart, the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton John and others. He enjoyed the studio work (“Those fiddlers and guitar pickers could play the socks off of anybody,” he said) but he still calls classical music “the world’s great music.”
During this period, Herzberg was developing his second great passion. He fell in love with the Chinese language, particularly its written form. “It’s the only pictographic language in the world,” he said. “Every character has such a wealth of meanings and history behind it. Some lines of the Tao Te Ching are only six characters, but you need a long translation with pages of footnotes for an English speaker just to understand those six words.”
Not everyone understood this fascination. “‘This language is ‘ching-chang-chung-chuck-a-ta-boom. You can’t tell me all those Chinese people can communicate with those hieroglyphs,’” Herzberg recalls his German papa protesting. It’s a story the professor often retells his students.
Even Herzberg knew how impractical his academic focus was at the time: “It was never a passion that was going to be very lucrative,” he said.
He spent four years at Indiana University in Bloomington, earning an MA and completing his PhD course work in Chinese by 1980. During this time, he began attending a Disciples of Christ church, and after graduation, he moved to East Lansing, and started attending People’s Church, where he liked both minister and message:
“He was perhaps the greatest speaker that I ever heard,” Herzberg said. “His sermons really spoke to me. He would make you laugh; he would make you cry. He would only quote the Bible to illustrate life.”
In 1982, Herzberg became a Christian and was baptized with water from the Jordan River. “My definition of Christianity is love,” he said, “and what I try to do in my Christianity and in my life in general is spread that love.”
After graduation, jobs being scarce for Chinese scholars, Herzberg decided to create his own position. “I wrote letters to different colleges in the country and said, ‘Let me start a Chinese language program for you.’ My Jewish people call that chutzpah. Others call it naïve,” he said. Albion College in central Michigan finally took Herzberg up on his offer, and he went there in 1980 to start a Chinese language program and see how it would go.
“It went great because I was as entertaining as I could be,” Herzberg said. “Now I try to combine entertainment and rigor.” Four years later, when he left Albion, a college less than half the size of Calvin, there were 60 students enrolled in his Beginning Chinese course alone.
During his Albion experience, Herzberg also played full-time with the Grand Rapids Symphony. “By 1984, it had occurred to me that it would be really great to have both my employers in the same city rather than 100 miles apart,” he said. And that year, he came to Calvin to found a Chinese department.
“I felt very welcome … ,” Herzberg said, “but I did feel very different because there weren’t many people who were different from that Dutch ethnicity.” He started with a handful of students interested in studying Chinese and slowly grew the program.
By 1989, the Chinese language program had as many as 80 students. That summer, Herzberg took the first of many Calvin student groups he would lead to China, an historic event which coincided with the events in Tiananmen Square. “With that terrible crackdown, it made the world think that China wasn’t going to have the promising future that we thought,” he said. Almost immediately, enrollment in Calvin’s Chinese language courses dropped off.
To keep Asian language study viable, and Herzberg around, Calvin created an opportunity for him to polish up his Japanese language skills —acquired as a student of Chinese—and create a Japanese language program. “I found Japanese people to speak to in Grand Rapids, and I got a grant,” he said. “I did home stays in Japan with Japanese people and learned how they speak Japanese.” Slowly, he grew fluent, and throughout the 1990s, he grew the Japanese language program. In 1997, the college reinstated Chinese, and he taught both languages.
By that time, Herzberg had a partner in teaching it. In 1987, Xue Qin, a graduate of Bejing Normal University, came to Calvin as a graduate student and Herzberg’s teaching assistant. The two became friends. In 1990, they married. “Now she’s my Chinese teacher,” he said. “I have this walking dictionary at home.” Qin teaches the upper-level Chinese classes, and the pair have partnered on three books and two documentary films on China. They travel almost yearly to China, when Larry isn’t leading a group of Calvin students around either China or Japan..
In all of their projects, the couple hopes to give a nuanced picture of China and the Chinese culture: “We want to correct many of the misconceptions that the average Westerner, and in particular the average American, has of China today. We feel that China is represented in an overly negative way by the media,” Herzberg said. “Most Americans have a picture of China as the dark, oppressive society it was30 years ago. They don’t realize how much more personal freedom the Chinese people enjoy today in so many areas of their lives, as well as the quantum leap in their standard of living.”
In 2009, Herzberg was honored as one of two (sociology professor Lissa Schwander was the other) recipients of the From Every Nation Award for Excellence in Teaching for his career-long efforts to illuminate other cultures. “It’s not important that I got the award, but that the award exists,” he said. “I think what’s more important than that is that we’ve made a deliberate effort to promote diversity.”
Herzberg is, as one colleague described it, an “excellent, enthusiastic and somewhat eccentric teacher.” He uses props and mnemonic devices to de-mystify the Chinese language. He teaches students the Chinese names for all of the furniture in his dollhouse and every piece of his plastic fruit. “When I teach in Chinese or Japanese that someone is taking the car from the college to a restaurant to eat dinner, it makes the lesson come more alive if I put Miss Piggy in a pink Barbie Corvette and show her driving from a sign that says ‘Calvin College’ to a sign that says ‘Nakamura’s Noodle Restaurant,’” he explained.
Bays, the director of Calvin’s Hubers Asian Studies Program, testified to the effectiveness of Herzberg’s techniques: “When I first came here in 2000, I met Larry and thought to myself, ‘I can’t believe that this guy can teach both introductory Chinese and Japanese and be any good at it.’ So I observed very closely the work of his students. I found that they loved his teaching , but more important, they were learning both languages well,” Bays wrote.
He saw that Herzberg’s students were re-enrolling in Asian language classes, scoring well on standardized tests and getting into prestigious foreign-language programs. “Finally, these students were returning in droves to China and Japan after graduation,” he wrote. The students were working in foreign-owned enterprises, serving as foreign-service officers and teachers. “These are all students who have been inspired to make Asia the center of their lives,” Bays wrote, “and each and every one of them has been a student of Larry.”
Larry’s students also testify about how he has influenced them. Mixed in with the papers, toys and books in his office are a samurai sword, Korean dolls, photographs, a jade figure, a Calvin teddy bear, a Chinese rug—all gifts from students. Herzberg has taught with a puppet that former students had had made for him. “It’s supposed to look like me, with the Jewish schnoz, and sports a Superman cape with the kanji for Chinese characters on it” he said. His students also write him letters, and, when called upon, nominations.
“While many of my former professors willingly assisted me outside of the classroom, Professor Herzberg, regardless of the nature of the conversation, repeatedly went the extra mile to teach, mentor and encourage me,” wrote Eric Bratt ’09, a 2009-2010 Fulbright Scholar currently studying Mandarin in China.
In his nomination, Delgaty reminisced about being nervous about keeping up in his first Japanese class: “After a 15-minute monologue, brimming with confidence and compassion, Larry had me believing I could learn this language of strange sounds and funny shapes,” he wrote: “Confidence and compassion are the hallmarks of Larry’s teaching and the structure by which he lives his life.”
Indeed, compassion is his goal, Herzberg said: “I’ve realized that my mission is to spread love in the world through the Chinese language,” he said. “If my students receive anything else from me, they receive love.”