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A cultural exchange

Community: Chinese students stay with families in Santa Clarita for a taste of America

Posted: August 10, 2010 10:00 p.m.
Updated: August 11, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Dolly Ye, 13, writes a letter to her local sponsor family at Grace Baptist Church on Monday. A total of 30 Chinese students ranging in age from 12 to 16 traveled to America and studied for three weeks in the EF Language Travel program. The students went home Tuesday.

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Donna He mustered up the courage to speak English in front of a classroom full of her fellow foreign-exchange students and teachers, pointing to a photograph of herself next to a wax statue in Hollywood.

“This is...” Donna paused. “Mary?”

She looked up to her teacher, Nikki Beck, for approval.

“Marilyn, you mean,” Beck said. “Marilyn Monroe.”

“Yeah,” Donna said nodding. “She was nice.”

The group of students, ages 12 to 16, traveled to Santa Clarita from their hometown of Guangzhou, a metropolitan city in Southern China. The group came for three weeks to live with local host families and learn about American culture, language and history.

They traveled to San Francisco to take a boat to Alcatraz Island; Hollywood to see the glitz and glamour; and Malibu to test their balance surfing the Pacific’s rolling ocean waves.

“We hit most of the tourist hotspots but we also tried to incorporate some culture. We took the students to the (J. Paul Getty Museum),” Beck said. “The students liked to shop; they wanted to bring American items back to their families.”

Dolly Ye, one of the older foreign-exchange students, sat at a table writing in Chinese and chatting with her friends.

“San Francisco was my favorite place. I liked the European feel and ethnic districts,” Dolly said.

Before she came here, Ye learned about American culture from the book, “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett and the movie “Gone with the Wind.”

Dolly came to America to learn more about the language and culture and has hopes of attending a top American university.

“I’d like to go to Harvard or Yale,” Dolly said.

She said she appreciated the open-mindedness of Americans and noted that soap operas here are racier than in China.

“You can see whatever you want to see here,” Dolly said. “People here are more open-minded, but middle-aged people seem more conservative.”

Dolly also commented that the teenagers she met in America talked mainly about pop stars and video games and did not seem very intellectual or well-read.

Dolly highly admired America’s affluence and preferred the skyscraper-free skyline and relatively clean air of Santa Clarita over the more crowded sections of Los Angeles, like downtown.

EF Language Travel — which stands for Education First — ran the students’ visit. Teachers gave the students an English-language book and an American culture book and taught the students in a classroom-like setting, where the students were only allowed to speak English. EF Language Travel program has also brought students to America from France, Spain, Norway, Sweden and Italy.

Host families volunteered to house the students, and are usually found through word-of-mouth from other families. 
Jodi Phelps, a mother of three and first-time host, thought housing the students would be a good experience for both her and her children.

The students interacted very well with my kids and taught them how to say phrases like “I love you” in Chinese, Phelps said. Phelps enjoyed showing American culture to the students.

She explained what a barbecue was to one of the students and her husband taught another student how to swim.

“Getting to see them experience American culture first-hand, for the first time, was awesome,” Phelps said.

Phelps said she learned tolerance while housing the students, especially when it came to different cultural customs and taboos. Phelps also took the students to a Chinese market, where they bought ingredients to make a traditional Chinese meal for the Phelps family.

“When I first offered to do this, I thought it would be a neat experience,” Phelps said. “But I didn’t realize how much I would learn and how attached I would get to them.”

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