As the 2022 farmers market got underway, market manager Fred Yen could sense the frustration. Shoppers who spoke little English were finding it a challenge to communicate with vendors. Many of these shoppers were older Mandarin speakers, and they liked coming to the market; they were repeat customers. Fred wanted to smooth the experience for everyone and had an idea. He reached out to Jennifer Zhang, one of the founders and a leader in the Winchester School of Chinese Culture, which teaches Mandarin and has many young people in the classes.
Fred said the farmers market was trying to find ways for Mandarin-speaking customers to feel more welcome. Could Jennifer help? Jennifer says she “immediately thought about our Chinese school students. Winchester Chinese school has a tradition to have young students to help elderly.… Grandmas and grandpas come to Chinese school to learn with their grandchildren. It’s a great way to bond the multi generations and also gives an opportunity for the students to practice Chinese.”
She sent out a request to parents and received enthusiastic responses. Soon kids were signing up and showing up at the farmers market each week to translate. Several mothers helped organize. The Chinese elders warmed to the kids and accepted their help.
Towards the end of the season, several of the student volunteers reflected on their experiences. The Qin siblings—Katelyn (4th grade) and Benjamin (6th grade)—wrote essays as did the Lubomirski siblings—Ethan (9th grade), Renee (9th grade), and Adam (11th grade). One group of Mandarin-speaking shoppers expressed their appreciation for the market and the student translators in a Thank You letter. Following is their story.
You can read the volunteers’ essays and the ‘Thank You’ letter below, following this story.
So, What Happened?
In their thank you note, the Mandarin-speaking elders wrote, “At the beginning [of the 2022 farmers market season], language was a big barrier in our communication with the cashiers. It was very hard for us to express what we needed to the vendors.”
Before the translators arrived, the elderly shoppers struggled along, until “one Saturday in early July, things were changing. On that day at the checkout, we noticed two ladies with a few kids standing there helping us out. They can speak our familiar language – Mandarin – to us! That really relieved us.”
Ninth grader Ethan Lubomirski was one of the student translators. He remembers feeling anxious and wondering if his language skills be good enough. “The first time when I was there to do translation,” he wrote, “I was nervous since I was not sure that I could understand what they said.”
However, the elderly customers were grateful, Ethan remembers: “At first the Chinese grandparents were surprised to see me, a kid standing by the cashier, to understand them and even translate for them. They were so amazed to see that I could speak mandarin and they loved it.”
The vendors also loved it. Jerry Lanni of Lanni Orchards said in addition to translating between the vendors and the customers, the kids were great as “gofers.” Ninth grader Renee Lubomirski explained that when a shopper she was translating for reached the register, Renee might take back or “gofer” a few eggplants or bok choy to make the customer’s total come to the right amount.
Fourth grader Katelyn Qin agreed, “Sometimes they forgot to bring some vegetables to the cashiers, I would go to grab the stuff for them.” She helped in other ways, too. For example, “One day I helped an old Chinese lady carry her heavy bags and made sure she returned back to the car safely.”
Vendor Jerry said through interacting with the Chinese-speaking customers, “I’ve learned many words of Mandarin.” Eleventh grader Adam Lubomirski remembers the day he first heard Jerry and his daughter Angelica speaking some words of Mandarin. It made Adam burst out in delighted laughter.
Lucky and Grateful
In their thank you letter, the Mandarin-speaking elders described many ways that the student volunteer translators patiently helped and showed they cared. With the kids around, “Our hearts were comforted. We were so lucky to have them there!” The youngsters also brought joy: “Sometimes the kids’ not-quite-standard-mandarin speaking brought laughter to us. How cute they were!” Now the farmers market experience turned from one that brought anxiety and struggle to one of enjoyment: “With the live music in the Winchester commons, we purchased our groceries, feeling relaxed and back home.”
Reflections from the Student Chinese Translators
In their essays, the student translators reflected on their efforts. Sixth grader Benjamin Qin experienced the satisfaction of helping others: “I felt very fulfill[ed] after I helped them talk with the cashier and get what they need, helped them carry the heavy bags, or even just ask how I can help them.”
The farmers market became a real world classroom where students’ language skills connected them with real people with real stories. Ninth grader Renee Lubomirski wrote, “I realized the beauty of foreign language and how it could be used in the real world to help other people. I was delighted to see that my knowledge of Mandarin has left the classroom and helped other people with everyday activities.”
Likewise, wrote Adam Lubomirski, “Before this experience, my knowledge about immigrants’ lives was limited to the classroom…. Never did I really connect [classroom] stories with real life, until I was standing in the market helping the crowds of Chinese grandparents.”
Like the others, Adam forged a connection with the elders: “They are unique with their own stories of coming to this country. Some looked at me like I was their grandkid! Once, they even shared with me their family pictures and introduced me to everyone in the pictures. They told me where they were from China and their lives and stories before moving here.”
Reflections from the Elders
The Mandarin-speaking elders reflected, “From them we feel respect, support and love. They brought warmth to us, the old immigrants to the U.S. We are grateful for their kindness and more inspired by their spirits of the young generation!”
Bilingual Skills, by Katelyn Qin, 4th grade
Every weekend in the past summer, the most exciting thing I was looking forward to was going to the farmers market with my family. We would first enjoy the delicious bakery goods for breakfast on the big, lovely green. Then we would go to the farmers’ stands to translate for the Chinese elderly people who don’t speak English. I found out many ways to help them, not just being a translator. Sometimes they forgot to bring some vegetables to the cashiers, I would go to grab the stuff for them. One day I helped an old Chinese lady carry her heavy bags and made sure she returned back to the car safely. I’m very happy that I found a way to use my bilingual skills to help others.
Just Call … When You Need a Hand, by Benjamin Qin, 6th grade
Throughout the summer, I had a memorable experience volunteering at Winchester Farmers Market. Every Saturday morning, a lot of Chinese elderly come to shop for fresh vegetables and fruits. However, it’s very challenging for them to communicate with the stand owners because they barely speak English. As a volunteer, I felt very fulfilling after I helped them talk with the cashier and get what they need, helped them carry the heavy bags, or even just ask how I can help them. I wasn’t just getting along with the elderly, but also built a great friendship with the stand owners. Sometimes the stands were very crowded, and cashiers were quite overwhelmed. They really appreciated our effort for helping them out to communicate with the Chinese elderly. To be able to help people using my language and skills is my passion.
Giving Is Receiving, by Ethan Lubomirski, 9th grade
The best experience I have when volunteering at Winchester Farmers Market is that I could apply my mandarin skills to help others. In the past, I have only practiced mandarin either at Chinese school or with my mother’s side family. I had never imagined that one day my not-so-fluent mandarin could be so helpful to others.
At the local farmers market, there are a lot of retired Chinese elders who take the bus every Saturday to get fresh vegetables. The Lanni Orchards stand is the elders’ go-to spot since it has their favorite stuff - fresh bok choy, spicy peppers, local honey, etc. The first time I went there, I was overwhelmed. The line was long and the elders were crowded at the cashiers. Behind them were a long line of impatiently waiting customers. The problem was that most of the elders didn’t speak English, which made communication with the vendors hard. Consequently, the check-out was slow. The first time when I was there to do translation, I was nervous since I was not sure that I could understand what they said. With my mom’s help, gradually I figured out their questions and needs and was able to work on my own eventually. Simple questions included telling them how much they spent and how much money was left in their cards. Besides that, I helped them get the vegetables from the stand, sort out stuff, and carry their bags full of vegetables. At first the Chinese grandparents were surprised to see me, a kid standing by the cashier, to understand them and even translate for them. They were so amazed to see that I could speak mandarin and they loved it. My language skills enabled me to facilitate the communication between vendors and customers. The transaction became smooth and easy. I saw happy faces and thumbs up. This felt like a great sense of accomplishment.
Stepping Up, by Renee Lubomirski, 9th grade
Over the weeks I spent at the Farmers Market, I explored the different booths and eventually was lured to the “Lanni Orchards” booth, which sold a myriad of vegetables including a vast array of Chinese vegetables. The Lanni Orchards booth had attracted by far the most customers, primarily of whom were Chinese elders.
When I first helped out at the Lanni booth, I was overwhelmed by the large number of people, the long lines, the disarray and confusion that came from the language barrier between Chinese elders and the cashiers. I wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do. Instead, I stood sheepishly off to the corner and watched the lively marketplace. Over time, I slowly emerged from the corner and began to get more involved with translations. With the help of my mother, I became more comfortable and confident when answering their questions. Oftentimes, their questions were: how much does this vegetable cost? How much money is left on my card? Along with answering questions, I also helped put their vegetables into bags, return extras, or pick up more.
During my Farmers Market experience, I had many heartwarming experiences with customers. It included a time when a Chinese elder complimented me on my Chinese pronunciation. Another time was that I was thanked for helping find vegetables for an elder who was in a rush. By the end, I realized the beauty of foreign language and how it could be used in the real world to help other people. I was delighted to see that my knowledge of Mandarin has left the classroom and helped other people with everyday activities.
A Bridge over Troubled Water, by Adam Lubomirski, 11th grade
The volunteer experience at the Winchester Farmers Market is unforgettable. From there I got to feel how much I could help others and influence the community around me. At the same time, this experience opened a window for me to see older immigrants’ lives, and feel their happiness and difficulties.
It was the first time that I realized that my language skills could help and impact others’ lives. On the first day in the market at Lanni Orchard stand, it was a bit overwhelming. A crowd of Chinese elders gathered at the checkout desk, eagerly and anxiously talking to the cashier. Unfortunately, the cashier could not understand them and the line was getting longer. My mom brought us over and together with a few other volunteers, we figured out what was happening and quickly found the solution. From that day on, we started to volunteer there, translating, communicating, and organizing stuff. With our help, the language barrier was smoothed out, the line shortened, and smiles emerged on the elders’ faces. Our Mandarin corner was even spreading to the owners of the booth we were working at! Angelica and her dad, who are owners of Lanni Orchard, started to say “Mi Ma” (password in Mandarin) when requesting it from Chinese elders. After hearing it, we all burst into laughter! What a diverse little world in our booth! Over time, our stand became better and better. We were building a bridge to connect the elders with the outside world, which brought joy to all of our lives. I remember the moment when I saw their worried and anxious expressions change into smiles. I remember the moment when an over 80-year old grandpa said a sincere “thank you” to me after I carried his big grocery bags. I remember the moment when I received approving pats on my back after I ran around to get the vegetables the customers needed. I remember the moment when I got thumbs-up when speaking in Mandarin to help out the elders at checkout. To me, all the things I do are too little to be mentioned, but to them they mean so much. I am so honored that I can help to make their lives easier. At the same time, I am growing to be a better person and make a better world around me.
Before this experience, my knowledge about immigrants’ lives was limited to the classroom. We read books about immigrants at school, like the Circuit, Refugee, The Arrival, etc. Never did I really connect these stories with real life, until I was standing in the market helping the crowds of Chinese grandparents. They are unique with their own stories of coming to this country. Some looked at me like I was their grandkid! Once, they even shared with me their family pictures and introduced me to everyone in the pictures. They told me where they were from China and their lives and stories before moving here. Every story is like a bridge to connect me with the world, which enriches my life and expands my knowledge, vision and perspectives.
School starts and my schedule is tight. I still find time to go to the market to help. On my way there, I’m whistling the song Bridge Over Troubled Water - “…like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind…”
Thank You Letter
Thanks to Our Volunteers,
by Kemin Zhang, Rainbow ADHC member, on behalf of the group of elders
Hi Winchester Farmer Market Organization,
We are a group of elders from Rainbow ADHC [Adult Day Healthcare Center]. Since summer, every Saturday morning we take a bus to the Winchester Farmers Market to get fresh vegetables and other groceries. Here we met a group of volunteers who greatly helped us and made our experience full of fun, laughter and love!
We always loved the stuff at the Farmers Market, except that at the beginning, language was a big barrier in our communication with the cashiers. We are not English speakers, but speak Mandarin instead. It was very hard for us to express what we needed to the vendors. Our coordinator was overworked to explain everything to us. This caused the check-out line to be long and chaotic. The dilemma was that our bus was scheduled to leave at a designated time. With the time pressure, our crowds were anxious to finish their transactions as soon as possible and get back to the bus. Everyone was rushing and a bit panicked.
One Saturday in early July, things were changing. On that day at the checkout, we noticed two ladies with a few kids standing there helping us out. They can speak our familiar language – Mandarin – to us! That really relieved us. Working together with our coordinator, they translated English for us, patiently answered all our questions, sorted out groceries, ran around to get what we needed, and even found a restroom for us. Some of us are old and feeble. The crew helped us carry the heavy grocery bags. Some could not talk or hear clearly, they patiently slowed down and explained the issue clearly to us until we fully understood it. With them around, the transactions went smooth, the check-out line was moving fast and our hearts were comforted. We were so lucky to have them there!
Since then, the crew showed up at the market every Saturday morning. They worked hard and wholeheartedly for us. On those hot summer days, their sweet smiles and warm words were like the summer breeze, sweeping away our worries and anxieties. Sometimes the kids’ not-quite-standard-mandarin speaking brought laughter to us. How cute they were! With the live music in the Winchester commons, we purchased our groceries, feeling relaxed and back home. As time moved on, we got to know more of the volunteer crew. We made friends with the two leading ladies, who are Juan and Na. They brought their children to the market to help us. The kids were from Winchester Chinese School. When they knew that there was a need for translation service at the market, they signed up to be volunteers and came here to help. What a wonderful group of children that we want to mention! They are Lubomirski siblings – Adam, Ethan and Renee Lubomirski, Qin siblings – Benjamin and Katelyn Qin, and Matthew Chen. From them we feel respect, support and love. They brought warmth to us, the old immigrants to the U.S. We are grateful for their kindness and more inspired by their spirits of the young generation!
Thank you so much to all the volunteers! All the heart-warming memories at Winchester Farmers Market will be remembered! We wish to see you next season!