Chinese exchange students share culture, forge friendships with DA hosts
Posted 02/11/2016 05:48PM

Traditionally, the way a quarter of the world’s population celebrates one of the biggest Asian holidays of the year is to go home to their families, take a week or more off from school, and, if they own a business, close up shop for the Chinese New Year. Over the last two weeks, Durham Academy has hosted seven Chinese students, helping to create a home away from home as they celebrated their traditions nearly 7,000 miles away.

The students, in North Carolina as part of an exchange program with DA, celebrated the holiday with their host families and new pals they've made during their stay in Durham. For the DA host students and other classmates, their presence was an opportunity to learn about Chinese New Year traditions firsthand.

"In Chinese New Year, we have many traditional things to do, and one of them is wish you a Happy New Year," He Mu, one of the exchange students, explained during a presentation to DA students. "Children in the Chinese New Year, they say to their parents and grandparents gōngxǐ fācái [Happy New Year] and then after that they say hóu nián dàjí, which means that we wish you will get a lot of money and please give me some of it."

The presentation on Chinese New Year traditions — held during tutorial on Feb. 9, the day following the New Year celebration — was preceded by a flash mob dance by several of the DA Chinese language students and followed by a calligraphy demonstration by DA Chinese language teacher Bonnie Wang.

The seven students, accompanied by their biology teacher, Lirong Zhang, traveled to Durham from Beijing National School #8, arriving on Jan. 31. Their two-week visit will come to an end on Feb. 14, when they leave for Washington, D.C. While in Durham, each student has lived with a DA host family, and they were made to feel at home on the Upper School campus by "school buddies," with whom they went to class.

Freshman Nechama Huba was among the DA students who served as school buddies for the visitors.

"I don't speak any Chinese so I thought we'd have big communicative issues," she said, "but we really bonded and I think I got to know Helen really well, and also a lot of the other Chinese students." 

The visit was facilitated by the Chinese Culture and Education Center, which organized a visit to China by DA Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner and Associate Head of School/Upper School Director Lee Hark last spring. At that point, DA was partnering in an exchange program with Beijing Normal University. Now, DA global programs coordinator Kevin Schroedter and Wang are working to plan the reciprocal leg of this year's program with Beijing National School #8 — a visit to China with DA students this summer. Students or parents of students who are interested should contact Schroedter or Wang with questions.

"The exchange programs allow our kids to hear other voices — literally other voices, with different languages — but also get a sense for how people live in this world," Schroedter said. "We're trying to build empathy and understanding and global citizenship. It's not something that you can learn with a textbook. A lot of our kids — in meeting these exchange students and building friendships — will be inspired to go and visit their new friends. And if not while they're at DA, then the seed is planted for exploring this great world we have later on."

While in Durham over the past two weeks, the Chinese students have, for the most part, lived the lives of typical DA students. They've attended math and English classes with their school buddies; cheered on the Blue Devils and Cavaliers at Duke and DA basketball games; enjoyed traditional North Carolina barbecue; and spent lots of quality time with their host families.

Thanks to the timing of their visit, the students have had the opportunity to see how DA typically celebrates Chinese New Year — from the Preschool Chinese enrichment class's performance of a New Year song, to the distribution of the traditional red envelopes from Middle and Upper School Chinese language students to their classmates.

Several of the visitors hope that they'll be back in the United States in a few years — and for an extended stay. Attending an American college or university is a goal of many students at China's top schools, and DA's college counseling team offered the exchange students some advice on navigating the U.S. college application process.

During a presentation early in their trip, Co-Directors of College Counseling Kathy Cleaver and Jazmin Garcia Smith walked the visitors through the application process, underscoring the importance of recommendation letters and of writing essays that offer admissions officers a window into who the students truly are — beyond test scores and grades.

The college counseling team also sought to broaden the visitors' view of college options beyond the Ivy League and similarly selective schools. A request from Garcia Smith to shout out names of American colleges was met with a chorus of answers: Harvard, Stanford, Duke, MIT.

"Those that you mentioned are some of the most selective, most competitive universities,” Garcia Smith said, “but there are many, many great universities in the United States."

Just as they work to help DA students identify their perfect-fit college, Cleaver and Garcia Smith sought to help the Chinese visitors to do the same, providing them with access to thick books of college listings and directing them to websites for international students.

"We want college to feel like a comfortable-fitting piece of clothing ... ," Cleaver said. "There are 3,000 choices, so your job if you want to come to the United States is to look beyond the ones that you think everybody knows about."

Nancy Deng, one of the seven exchange students, has dreams of attending New York University and found the college counseling information helpful.

"They gave me some information about how to get into the universities of America," she said. "Because we are Chinese, we find that there are some pressures for us. So I think maybe we can get into the universities easier [with the knowledge from the presentation]."

For both the DA students and their new Chinese friends, the visit has been one that they won't soon forget.

"It has been really fun," said freshman Kaynaz Soheili. "They are really good at speaking English, which is really good because I'm not in a very high level of Chinese and it was really easy to communicate with them. My person was really nice and they're all really fun people."

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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