Chinese exchange students get a two-week taste of American food, music and culture

On Monday morning, Penn Charter high-schoolers were prepared for an emotional goodbye. 

During the two weeks of Penn Charter’s new Chinese exchange program, in which ten Chinese high-schoolers lived with Penn Charter peers’ families, firm friendships were forged with teenagers from half a world away (two accompanying Chinese teachers were hosted by Penn Charter faculty). But there is some comfort – eight Penn Charter students will be reunited with their new friends in about seven weeks, when they travel to China to complete the exchange.

“They definitely found more similarities than they did differences,” says Spanish teacher David Brightbill, chair of Penn Charter’s foreign language department and, along with history and social studies teacher Ed Marks, an instrumental figure in developing the program. The kids particularly bonded over the chance to share their favorite music.

Evolution of the program 

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The exchange program has its roots in a 2009 Penn Charter committee to introduce a non-Western language into the school’s curriculum, which offered Latin, French and Spanish. Mandarin was chosen, and in 2010, Mandarin teacher Daphne Lee, a native of Taiwan, began classes for Penn Charter seventh graders. This year, eighth graders also had the opportunity to begin the language.

“But you don’t just slap a Mandarin teacher into the classroom,” said Marks, also a member of the non-Western language committee, who first traveled to China in 2009 as part of an educators’ service trip to a rural village devastated by the 2008 earthquake. “That approach is usually going to fail.” While many schools tend to focus on learning the Chinese characters, Brightbill explained that Penn Charter emphasizes practical communication, which involves complex auditory tones.

Penn Charter faculty knew they wanted to develop more than just a language course. “We wanted to create a wider context,” Marks said, promoting an interdisciplinary cultural approach. A China Connections Committee came up with ways to engage students with broader aspects of Chinese life, including a Tai Chi P.E. offering, courses in Eastern religions, and a new Modern China class to complement existing instruction on ancient China.

The capstone of the new program was establishing a relationship with a Chinese high school interested in an exchange: Yaohua School in Tianjin, near the country’s north-eastern coast. Brightbill notes that the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia, through existing business ties between Tianjin and Philadelphia, played a key role in the discovery and selection of Yaohua as Penn Charter’s new “sister school.” By pure coincidence, a current Penn Charter student was born in Tianjin, though he lives with a relative in the U.S., and he was able to help faculty members translate an early letter from Yaohua School. In spring 2010, Yaohua administrators visited Penn Charter, and Marks and Brightbill returned the visit that summer. Finally, ten students arrived this January for the immersive program’s inaugural exchange, all of them coming to the U.S. for the very first time.

Surprises and challenges 

While Brightbill notes that the students’ trip has run smoothly overall, there were some surprises and challenges for the visitors, particularly when it came to America’s rampant multiculturalism, so different from the more homogeneous culture of Tianjin.

“Chinese students may not realize what multiculturalism means in everyday life here,” Brightbill explained. For example, some students, with their own expectations of American cuisine, were startled to see Italian, Indian or Mexican fare on the tables of their host families.

During a final in-school reception for the Chinese students and their hosts on Friday, with a riot of Spanish, Chinese and English messages covering the classroom whiteboard, participating students and faculty shared a cake, gave gifts, and spoke about the highlights of the visit.

Not least among these, for the American students, was homework help from their Chinese friends and an introduction to Chinese TV dramas. Chinese students enjoyed tasting Philly cheesesteaks, attending a 76ers game, and visiting D.C., New York City, and downtown Philadelphia. Enough flexibility was built into the students’ visit that some impromptu first-hand lessons took place as well. One visitor, staying with a student whose father is a lawyer, took an interest in learning about the U.S. justice system, particularly its method of trial by jury. Her questions culminated in a downtown field trip for seven of the Chinese students, where they observed a jury selection process and spoke with a Center City court judge.

The visiting students prefer to be called by the Western names they had selected, though they were careful to point out that in China, family names precede personal names. They had a variety of reactions to typical American life, speaking with this Newsworks reporter at length between affectionate hugs from their hosts.

Adjusting to American life 

Visitor Jessica Miao found the exchange an exciting opportunity and enjoyed exploring the city, though she complained that American food is too sweet compared to Chinese cuisine – even American Oreos have more sugar than the ones she’s used to – and US plates lack fruit and vegetables. Fellow traveler Lydia Rong had trouble with ice water, which gave her stomachaches. She prefers her water hot, but says “I really enjoyed life here.”

Penn Charter ninth-grader Carolin Brady, whose family hosted Lydia at home, is among the American group traveling to China. When Lydia first arrived, Carolin worried they wouldn’t get along, because Lydia slept so much during her first week. But it was just the effect of a 13-hour jet lag, and the girls quickly found plenty to do together as Lydia adjusted.

“I didn’t know that anyone could shop for the same amount of time that I could,” Carolin said of her new friend. “But apparently they can.”

“I’m glad to have Carolin as a friend,” Lydia said.

Visitor Alice Jing noted that sometimes it was difficult to explain concepts of traditional Chinese culture in English. But “charades work,” host Marlaina Stuve chirped. Alice was particularly taken by the squirrels, largely ignored by US natives, that run free in Philadelphia and New York City – in her hometown, she explained, it’s unusual to see an animal running around so close to people. She especially enjoyed Marlaina’s cat, as such house-pets are a relative rarity at home.

Chinese chaperone Yu Yannan was making her second trip to the U.S. – in 1998, she spent a year working at a DC-area elementary school. She is impressed by the work ethic of Penn Charter’s students, and praises the friendliness of the Americans she’s met. Yu anticipates that the kids involved in the exchange will keep in touch after the program is finished.

The experience was “a very, very special” one on all sides, Lee said, with cultural as well as linguistic exchange. “You taught my students something too,” she said in an address to the visitors.

“This is a good, big step for us,” Marks said. Penn Charter looks forward to continuing the program in future years.

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