The Canadian anthropologist talks happily with her old friends who gathered to celebrate a very special birthday.
Slender but energetic in appearance, Isabel Crook recently turned the grand age of 90, having spent most of her life living and working in China.
"I am so happy that so many friends could come to my birthday party," she said.
The anthropologist was born in Chengdu, Sichuan Province in China on December 15, 1915 but did not settle there then. She left the country only to return again in 1947 with her husband.
They came with the intention of carrying out research on land reform and co-operatives in Chinese villages and together wrote the "Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village."
However, her greatest contribution was the development of English education in the country, where she went on to help set up the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, which is now Beijing Foreign Studies University.
She made an irreplaceable effort to teach China's first batch of diplomats English and helped cultivate numerous English teachers for China.
Crook began her profession as an English teacher in 1948 in Nanhaishan School of Foreign Affairs in Shijiazhuang of Hebei Province, which was the predecessor of Beijing Foreign Languages Institute.
After helping to set up the institute in 1950 she went on to work as an English teacher there for 30 years.
"Isabel's legendary life is so closely related to China and the university," said Hao Ping, president of the university. "She is a pioneer of the country's English education cause. And she has played a precious and significant role in developing our school."
In the eyes of her colleagues and students, Crook is an easy-going, affectionate but strict and responsible teacher.
"Isabel is not like most foreign experts that come here," said Zhang Yun, who taught the same class with Isabel 40 years ago. "She tried to work and live like a common Chinese person. For example, she did not live in the Friendship Hotel, where most foreign experts stayed at that time. She chose to live in a dormitory within our university."
"We all feel close to her," Zhang said. "We've never called her professor, but comrade Isabel, or simply Isabel."
Liu Chengpei, now 83, attended Crook's first teaching class in 1950.
Liu still remembers Crook's unique English teaching method, which did not initially gain support from her fellow teachers. Crook took on a trial teaching programme, making use of her own individual teaching methods and materials in order to help others master the foreign language.
"We made untold improvements in learning English, demonstrating that her pilot programme was successful," Liu said.
But as Zhang Zailiang said, Crook's professionalism and ability to drive others to persevere should be attributed to her teaching success.
Once a student of Crook's, Zhang came from Ningbo in Zhejiang Province.
"I could gain the necessary five-points-score in all subjects except oral English because of my strong southern accent. Isabel consistently refused to award me with five points, which drove me on to work hard to correct my accent."
Wu Yi'an, another of Crook's students, and Zhang Zailiang regard Crook as a very considerate person.
"I learnt that my teacher's birthday is December 15 for the first time today, and I am ashamed that I never knew this before," Wu said. "Isabel kindly decided to arrange her birthday celebration on December 17, a weekend, for her guests' convenience."
"She is the kind of person that always puts others before herself," Wu said.
Talking about his parents, Isabel's second son Michael Crook said: "my parents not only witnessed China's take-off, but also played a role in this historical stage."
Though locked up as a suspected spy during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Crook harbours no bitterness. She has shown great appreciation of the touching incidences of the ordinary life of ordinary people in China.
Source: China Daily