The Many Lives of Brad Lint
Feb 06, 2019 11:52AM
Mandarin Chinese is one of the most lusciously nuanced languages on the planet. With over 50,000 characters in the written form—it’s said that a well-educated Chinese person will know only about 8,000 of them—and four tones in the spoken dialect, giving many words four distinctly different meanings depending upon the speaker’s inflection, it can be maddeningly difficult for a foreigner to learn.
It also can be sublimely rewarding.
For no less an expert than Mansfield University professor Brad Lint, it has been both. And when we say expert, take it from a colleague of his, Mansfield Interim Provost John Ulrich, who says Lint’s Chinese language skills are “jaw-droppingly good.”
John has traveled with Brad through Mansfield’s U.S.-China Exchange Program and says he has witnessed “the astonished reaction of Mandarin speakers when Brad converses with them.”
“Mandarin is quite difficult for English speakers to master,” John continues. “But I really think it’s the combination of his fluency and his cross-cultural experience that makes him so unusually adept at communicating in Mandarin.”
High praise for a guy who is as American as jazz and Mark Twain, who lists his hobbies as astronomy, genealogy, and wine. Brad, fifty-two, was born in Ohio and grew up in Pittsburgh, rooting for football’s Steelers and hockey’s Penguins. Yet he took a flyer on learning Mandarin when nothing else seemed to be clicking. He parlayed that into sixteen unforgettable years in Taiwan that included gigs on game shows and soap operas, television voiceovers, and even being the recorded “voice” for a pull-string toy. Oh, and he met and married a Taiwanese woman, Pei Ling Chung, who also goes by Penny.
How did it all happen? Brad, who has been back stateside since 2007 and at Mansfield since 2013, attributes it to one of those nuanced Mandarin phrases.
“There’s actually no translation for that phrase in English, at least I haven’t found a translation,” Brad says with a twinkle in his eye. “I love coincidence, and I don’t know if there’s anything to it or not, but the idea behind yuanfen is fate, except when we say fate in English, it sounds almost tragic sometimes. In Chinese it’s only a positive, and it means you were meant to be in this situation or to meet this particular person at this particular time. And this is embedded in the culture, that it exists and that it happens.
“So, when you have that sense of ‘Wow, this is an incredible coincidence and it’s kind of meaningful,’ you would use that phrase...yuanfen.”
As you will see, it can be used often to describe the wonderfully unconventional, almost madcap, definitely “wow” life of Brad Lint, whose actual heritage is German, by the way, with speculation that the family may be linked to the famous Swiss chocolate makers Lindt. Of course, right?
His is a tale with as many twists and turns, hills and dales as a certain well-known Great Wall. As Brad was detailing his adventure, he was speaking influent Mandarin with an otherwise shy young waitress at the House of Hong on a gray December day in downtown Watkins Glen.
He and Penny live in Corning now with their seventeen-year-old daughter Belinda and twelve-year-old son Tristan. Brad drives a half hour south to Mansfield to go to work and Penny a half hour east to Elmira where she teaches Mandarin at Notre Dame High School. They are getting ready for the Chinese New Year, which this year is on February 5 and will usher in the Year of the Pig. Over an appetizer of scallion pancakes with soy dipping sauce—a traditional Chinese dish that Brad says he rarely sees on most menus in America—he begins by talking about his undergraduate schooling at the University of Pittsburgh. He would graduate with a bachelor’s in political science, but one of the classes he took was a comparative analysis of Soviet and Chinese politics.
“The professor said, ‘If you really want to do this as an area, you should learn the languages,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Russian and Chinese,’” Brad recalls with another easy laugh. “So, I started Russian. What killed me, though, was the Russian literature in Russian. It was Dostoevsky and writers like that. I couldn’t do it.”
He did earn a certificate in Russian and East European studies, however, and he also began studying Chinese, discovering quickly that he didn’t have as much interest in the politics as he thought but he did have an affinity for the language and the culture. “I loved it. It was fantastic. I really didn’t expect that,” says Brad, who would also minor in Chinese.
After undergrad, he decided to get more schooling. He began a master’s program in political science—again. But that didn’t work out so well—again—because, he says plainly, “I just didn’t really care for it.” Uncertain of his future, he took a job working in the library system at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Around that time, a friend paid him a visit.
Call it a yuanfen visit.
“He had been in Taiwan studying Chinese. Our Chinese professor had always told us if you really want to learn Chinese you’re not going to learn it in the classroom, you need to go there, and at the time everyone went to Taiwan because China wasn’t open yet,” Brad says. “They were having a great time in Taiwan, teaching [English], learning Mandarin, and traveling around Asia. It sounded like so much fun compared to what I was doing.”
He decided to take the plunge. He sold just about everything he owned to make enough money—$1,200 as he recalls—for a one-way ticket and to live for a while in Taiwan. It was May of 1991. “The plan was to stay six months,” Brad says. “I stayed sixteen years.”
That was when the fun—or as Brad says, “so much goofy stuff”—began.
It started, perhaps, because Brad was unlike many Americans who went to Asia and didn’t bother to attempt to assimilate the culture, speaking only English and reading only English-language newspapers. Refusing to live in what he calls a “bubble,” he continued studying Mandarin in intensive classes that accelerated his learning curve. “It was way different from what it was like in the U.S., which I should have figured, but I also got the chance to use it every day outside, which was great. The environment was really key.”
He also got a job at the Joy Language School, teaching English as a Foreign Language classes along with American and British literature, composition, conversation, and phonics. Eventually, he was offered a job as academic director, managing and administering 100 Joy branch schools in Taiwan while continuing to study Mandarin at the renowned National Taiwan Normal University.
Soon a call came from the producers of a Chinese gameshow that hosted team competitions and wanted to do a show pitting Joy teachers against teachers from HESS, another language school. Brad rounded up a team that beat the HESS squad and also used the opportunity to hand out his business cards “like candy.”
Call that making your own yuanfen.
The offers started pouring in for the American who could speak nearly fluent Chinese. The first was from another gameshow that played practical jokes on famous people, sort of like MTV’s Punk’d. The subject was a young singer; she was to be blindfolded and Brad would pretend to throw knives at her. “They put me in a tux that barely fit me before the show and said, ‘Pretend you’re a champion knife thrower.’ I never threw a knife in my life,” he says with a chuckle.
You can watch the YouTube clip here at youtube.com/watch?v=zecGDY6gl7c. And while Brad speaks English, it’s clear he is following the Chinese being spoken just fine.
At one point, the young singer asks him, “Have you killed people?” “Of course not, no. A thousand times I’ve done this, never one person injured,” he says, fibbing that he had performed in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Boston.
The gag was that while he wound up to a toss a knife, with the audience counting “one ... two ... three,” a member of the show staff would inch up close to the blindfolded singer and jab a knife in the board as if it had been whipped in there by the master knife thrower.
“I ran into her a couple of days after, in a bar of all places, and she punched me in the shoulder really hard,” Brad says, again with a laugh. “I turned around and was like ‘Who the hell is hitting me in the bar?’ and it was the girl. She started laughing, and I said, ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t know it was going to be that kind of mean practical joke kind of thing.’ She said they told her before the show that it was a setup but then when she heard me say all the stuff about my knife throwing experience and the blindfold, then she thought it was real and they told her it wasn’t so she wouldn’t be scared. She had a good sense of humor about it.”
At this point in the conversation, Brad’s meal is served. A vegan, he orders a meatless version of the iconic Chinese dish General Tso’s Chicken in a spicy sauce that also receives his stamp of approval for authenticity.
Then he continues his “American in China” tale. After the gameshow, even more varied offers came in. He wrote textbooks and did voice recordings of some of them.
“I’d be the guy that would say, ‘OK, open your books to page forty-three. Are you ready? Let’s go.’”
He wrote newspaper articles for the China News, wrote subtitles for TV shows, and did voiceovers, even for toys for Panasonic and Sony. “I was the voice when you pulled the string in the toy. I was the Martian from Bugs Bunny. They asked me to say a couple of phrases, ‘Take me to your leader,’ that kind of thing. I eventually heard my own voice in one of those toys once. There was no way to prove it, but I knew the stuff I recorded.”
A self-taught guitar player—though he labels himself a “singer who happens to play the guitar”—he also sang in coffee shops and bars, learning a few Chinese pop tunes, including one in a local Taiwanese dialect that he mixed in with popular American tunes, Irish folk music, and even Russian songs. Drawing decent crowds at an aboriginal bar called Driftwood in Taipei, he asked the owner for an increase in pay. “I tell the guy ‘I’m bringing in folks, I’d like more money’ and he says, ‘I can’t do that, but I can give you free beer.’ That was a mistake. He lived to regret that. He should have just paid me more money because he didn’t know how much beer I could drink.”
By this time, he had met and married his wife, and they had purchased a Joy franchise of their own and were running it successfully, but he wasn’t done performing. Thanks to his growing social network of connections—and yes, there’s a Mandarin word for that, too, guanxi—a teacher at their school started doing scriptwriting for a soap opera, which had an opening for, of all things, a priest. She called and asked if Brad would be interested.
“I’m not very religious,” Brad says, “but I said it’s something new, why not. I’ll try it out.”
You can watch that clip on YouTube, too, at youtube.com/watch?v=hG1jC3FXfQM. It’s completely in Chinese, but you’ll identify “Father Lint” easily enough in clerical clothing. He appeared in about six episodes, including one that highlights his command of the Mandarin language: When the lights went out after shooting one particularly dramatic scene in which he sweetly consoled the star of the soap opera in a church, he turned to the camera crew and saw tears rolling down their cheeks.
Despite all the notoriety, the fun, the travel to other Asian countries, around about the early 2000s—with a young family on the way—Brad began thinking that he didn’t want to teach in a Taiwan language school forever. Teaching literature, particularly world literature—and specifically Chinese and other Asian literatures—was his true passion. He spent several summers back in America taking graduate classes, and, then in July 2007, the family—which now included the children—moved back to the United States for good.
He taught at Indiana University of Pennsylvania for two years, then Penn State Behrend for four, courses such as Intro to Asian Literature, Identity in World Literature, Basic Writing, and Introduction to Buddhism.
Then came a posting that really caught his eye.
“It was a tenure track assistant professor of English, somebody who has experience in world literature, preferably Chinese, and experience teaching composition in college. A friend of mine in Pittsburgh said, ‘Did they write this position for you?’ It was at this little place called Mansfield University, which I’d heard of but never been there. I’d never been to north central Pennsylvania in my life.”
“When we hired Brad Lint, I didn’t realize what a tremendous asset his fluency in Mandarin and his cross-cultural skills would be for our university,” John Ulrich says. “They were a special thing—quite rare, in fact. Fast-forward to the present: in addition to his teaching duties, Brad is now our U.S./China Exchange Coordinator.”
Marie Domenech is director of the Mansfield University Center for International Cooperation and Exchange and works closely with Brad on the China program that about fifty Mansfield students have taken advantage of, earning dual degrees from Mansfield and from affiliated Chinese universities.
“His significant experience with Chinese culture and language has been integral in providing quality service to our international students,” she says. “Our students instantly relate to Brad as he provides them with a level of comfort and support they likely wouldn’t receive at another institution. He is a constant source of support for these students.”
Some may view the Mansfield job posting that Brad answered as the final yuanfen moment in this whirlwind tale. He wouldn’t, however. Instead, he moves a little ahead, to when he was trying to land that dream job and doing a teaching demonstration at Mansfield as part of the interview process.
“A guy walks by the classroom, does a double take, looks back in the room, and he says, ‘Dr. Lint?’ I looked at him, and I was like, ‘Ben?’ He was Ben Reynolds, one of my students from IUP from six years before. He was in one of my composition classes. Turns out he finished his first degree, went for a second degree in watershed management, and happened to be walking by the classroom after he went to the library to get a book that we had done in our class at IUP because it stuck with him and he wanted to use it for a paper he was writing. He was holding the book in his hand as he just kind of knocked on the door.
“I had to tell the committee, ‘I swear I didn’t plan this. Look,’ I told them, ‘if you want to talk to somebody about me, ask this guy.’ So, the Chinese would use that phrase, that he just happened to be walking by with that book in his hand. I mean, how do you explain that?”
You don’t. It’s pure yuanfen.