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Not-So-Foreign Exchange 

A Vermont teen "visits" China — without leaving home

My family hosted a pair of 13-year-old Chinese girls for two weeks this past summer. The first time I met Yumy and Jojo, I felt totally overwhelmed. I had never interacted with foreign students before, and until the moment we introduced ourselves, I knew nothing about them — not even their names. I was sure about one thing: These girls would be really different from me.

I had convinced my family to take part in my school's SPIRAL International exchange program. Over the course of the two-week camp, my American classmates and I would mentor Chinese students, teaching them English and taking them on field trips. At the end of each day, they'd come home with us.

This was a first for my family. But I'd been wanting to host exchange students ever since I heard about the SPIRAL program from my friends who participated last year. I was curious about these kids, their language and their culture.

Walking toward the bus to greet them for the first time, I found myself surrounded by 30 students speaking a language I didn't understand — I only knew a handful of Chinese phrases. I couldn't imagine how we were going to communicate. My family and I had no idea how much English they could comprehend, and we worried about confusing them. It was nerve-racking, too, because we wanted to like them, and for them to like us.

We were nervous and giddy while introducing ourselves. Jojo and Yumy knew the basics in English — "hello," "thank you," "you're welcome" — and enough simple vocabulary to make small talk. So we stuck to that, excited to be communicating at all.

When we got home that night, we played the card game Go Fish, figuring it was simple enough to break the ice. Yumy and Jojo had never played the game, but they caught on quickly. Soon, we were laughing and talking together. And when one of the girls complimented my hair, I said "thank you" in Chinese — I'd learned the phrase from watching "The Amazing Race." They were so excited I'd spoken a bit of their language.

I started to get a good feeling about the next two weeks.

But the first day of camp began awkwardly. I had decided I should act strictly as a mentor, focusing only on helping the Chinese students improve their English, and not try to be their friend. That didn't last. By the end of the day I realized I could do both, and it happened naturally. I loved talking to them and wanted to find out as much as I could about their lives.

Chongqing, the city in southwest China where Jojo and Yumi live, is gigantic; more than 28 million people live there. The first time they looked up at the Vermont night sky, they were shocked to see so many stars. I was shocked when they told me they'd never walked on grass. So our field trip to Shelburne Farms on a bright, sunny day was especially exciting.

In class earlier that day, the Chinese kids had learned the English names of farm animals. But when we got to Shelburne, it was the sky they wouldn't stop talking about; they couldn't believe how blue it was. In their city, smog gives the sky a hazy brown hue most days. They marveled at the soft grass and picturesque green landscape, the things I have always taken for granted. I looked around at the big, open fields, trying to see them through their eyes.

As the days went by, I began to feel more comfortable with everyone. I chose to sit with the exchange students, rather than with my fellow mentors, whenever we rode the bus. I liked hearing how different their schools are — in China the school day goes until 10 p.m., with a break halfway through for a nap. My new friends were fascinating. The best part? They seemed as interested in me as I was in them. Every time I taught them an English word, they'd teach me the Chinese version. We were learning together.

In some ways, I had been right from the start: These kids were really different from me. When we went bowling, for example, the Chinese students cheered every time I did well, rather than booed my successes like American kids do.

But we were alike in so many more ways. When I walked into the gym where we met each morning, the Chinese boys would be horsing around and playing basketball — just like normal goober American boys — and the girls would be playing games or listening to Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.

At the program's closing ceremony, it was hard to keep myself from crying. I broke down afterward while hugging my new friends, knowing I might never see them again. Yumy and Jojo had quickly become much more than my mentees, classmates and friends; they felt like family. I hadn't expected to become so close to them, and neither had the rest of my family. When Yumy and Jojo returned to China, it took us a few weeks to get used to life without them.

My teacher says there's a possibility that we could reverse the SPIRAL exchange in the future, and I could visit my new friends in China. In the meantime, there's email.

Brown is a freshman at BFA Fairfax. The Burlington-based SPIRAL international exchange program promotes cross-cultural understanding through exchange programs. Info, spiralinternational.org.
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