Joanna Zhao

Joanna Zhao’s grandmother Ye visited from China for long stretches throughout Joanna’s childhood, and since retiring, she’s been spending most of her time here in Lexington. Ye drives Joanna and her younger sister to school and back, does the grocery shopping at Market Basket and Costco, and uses GPS to get to unfamiliar places. But she does not speak English. To communicate with strangers, identify the contents of an item she’s buying, or understand a sign, Ye uses Google Translate and WeChat. These apps and others have made life easier, Joanna says — but she also thinks that her grandmother needs more than an app. When she heard about Lexington’s Senior English Academy Program, she and her friend Madeline Huang – both 15-year-old LHS sophomores – signed up to help.   

The Senior English Academy Program is one of 15 community service projects sponsored by the Chinese American Association of Lexington (CAAL), the Lexington civic organization founded in 1983 by immigrants from Taiwan. They range from the Never Fading Poppy Project, through which students send thank you cards to military veterans, to the Lex-Accompany program, in which LHS students serve as mentors to recently-arrived immigrant peers. 

Madeline Huang

The Senior English Academy Program was established in 2011 by Evan Zhang when he was an LHS sophomore. His grandmother was driving into Cambridge to take ESL classes at Harvard. Evan realized that the grammar workbook she was given wasn’t geared to her needs. She didn’t need help with grammar, but with pronunciation and conversation. Evan, who now works in the health field in San Francisco, founded the first Senior English Academy Program with her in mind twelve years ago.

I got interested in the Senior English Academy Program because I couldn’t communicate with my neighbors’ parents who supervised their grandchildren and walked their dogs in my neighborhood. I knew that in China, three-generation households were and are quite common. But I didn’t realize how that phenomenon has been complicated by the brain drain of young professionals to the U.S., which, combined with China’s now-discontinued “one-child” policy, has meant that a lot of Chinese seniors end up coming here to be near their only children.   

Joanna’s parents, Wei Zhao and Fanfan Meng, are both only children, as were all their friends and classmates in China. “It was only when we came to graduate school that we discovered most people had siblings,” says Wei. 

Like many Chinese-Americans in Lexington, the Zhaos obtained doctorates, moved into tech jobs, got green cards and decided to remain in the U.S. Statistics vary, but according to ZIPatlas, Chinese Americans, not including Taiwanese, currently comprise nearly 17% of Lexington’s population. 

“We try to help our parents,” says Wei. Retirement age in China is 50-55 for women and 60 for men. The pandemic disrupted travel opportunities, but this year, with more liberal travel regulations and visas, many Chinese seniors visited their children and grandchildren in the U.S. — and stayed. They come from urban and rural parts of China and leave their own homes, language, culture, and community to live with family. 

Joanna, who is bi-lingual and has visited China several times, thought the program Evan Zhang started made sense. She and Madeline (who both study Spanish in school) decided to revive the program, which hadn’t met in person since the outbreak of COVID. They made flyers and contacted Chinese seniors living in Lexington on WeChat. Then they reserved a room on Saturdays at The Lexington Community Center.

Although CAAL has provided some supervision, their parents were hands-off. “I’m like the chauffeur,” says Madeline’s mother, Jeannie. She drove them to three Chinese senior centers as they tried to recruit students, and she drives them back and forth from classes. “For me, it’s important to teach young people to make a difference and give back to the community,” says Joanna’s father, Wei. “In China, we were taught all day and never independent of instruction. Joanna and Madeline are teaching others, but the second teaching aspect is what they learn by organizing it on their own.”

Despite their extensive outreach, only seven Chinese seniors came to the first class in September, but others messaged to say that they would come the following week, and twelve did. Joanna and Madeline were surprised by how much English their students understood. Like Evan, they learned that the pressing need was conversational: they wanted to focus on pronunciation and understanding spoken English. 

Many immigrants from other parts of the world grew up either learning English as a second language in school or were exposed to it via film, radio or television. But most Chinese seniors grew up with very limited exposure to western mass media. In China, students are taught an orthographic (written rather than spoken) system of language learning, both for Chinese and foreign languages. Since many Chinese immigrants have little or no practice speaking or hearing English, comprehension and pronunciation can be a challenge.

Joanna and Madeline chose videos and prepared slides based on what they thought might be both fun and most helpful for their grandparents’ generation. Slides introducing English words for common clothing and vocabulary useful at the airport were met with smiles of recognition; a video by Taylor Swift, by baffled silence. I myself found it difficult to identify the words in the music video and found myself identifying with the grandparent generation which is, in fact, mine. 

The Senior English Academy Program is meant to help Chinese seniors learn to better communicate in English, but it is also meant to be a community service and learning project for Joanna and Madeline. They are learning an enormous amount of extra-curricular material: how they need to speak loudly and more clearly that they are accustomed to doing, how language acquisition works, how to organize and lead a class, and what their elderly students need. Every week they are being joined by other Lexington school volunteers. The project is open-ended. “We have no last day of class,” say Joanna and Madeline. “It may go on forever.”

For anyone interested in joining the class, either as a student or volunteer, please contact Madeline on WeChat, you can find her using the QR code below. 

HELEN EPSTEIN ( is a veteran journalist. Her latest book is Getting Through It: My Year of Cancer during Covid.

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