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For NYC Firefighters Learning Mandarin, Service Starts With 'Ni Hao'

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Lily Cheung teaches Mandarin to Greg Wong (left), Lt. Charles Flores (right) and other New York City firefighters, EMTs and paramedics at an old firehouse. The city is predicting that Chinese residents are likely to become New York's largest immigrant group in the next few years.

On Thursday nights near the Brooklyn, N.Y., waterfront, an old firehouse turns into a schoolhouse, where the drills are in Chinese.

The students are some of New York's bravest. About a dozen firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are taking the first Mandarin classes, funded by the New York City Fire Department Foundation. It's the start of a voluntary program that organizers hope to expand into other Chinese dialects and Asian languages in the future. For now, these first responders spend two hours a week learning Mandarin from Lily Cheung.

"A lot of them, they're working full-time. You would think they're dead tired, have no energy, but no, they just put so much energy to the class," she says. "They participate. They answer questions."

Doraun Ellis, a paramedic, has been studying on his own with a tutor for about a couple years now. He's even tried out some Mandarin phrases on the job, asking for his patients' insurance information and preferred hospital. That, he says, surprised many Chinese speakers.

"I'm a, you know, 6-foot-2 black guy. They were not expecting me to speak Mandarin," Ellis says.

The fire department wants to see more of these kinds of interactions. New York City is home to the largest Chinese community of any city outside Asia. The city is predicting that Chinese residents are likely to become New York's largest immigrant group in the next few years.

Lt. Steven Lee, president of the FDNY Phoenix Society, a group of Asian-American firefighters and other first responders, says recruiting more Chinese-speaking first responders is not enough.

"As the department continues to diversify and increase the amount of Asian-Americans entering the fire service, that's great, but that's going to take a long time," Lee says.

That's why, he says, he organized these Mandarin classes to help the department communicate with more of the New Yorkers they serve.

"It's also to show the communities that we embrace them as citizens of this city, that we are in acceptance of their culture and the transition that they're going through," he says.

Back in the classroom, Lt. Charles Flores says his transition to becoming a Mandarin speaker helps cut out the middlemen. Interpreters can be helpful to emergency medical workers like him. But, he says, it's always better to talk to patients directly in their own language.

"I deal with people in very bad situations. It's always late at night, frantic. People are sick," he says. "If you can put them a little at ease, that's half the treatment sometimes. It's just making them feel well."

And sometimes, he says, that all begins with a "ni hao" — hello.

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