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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 26, 2012

A personal journey
Learning Chinese leads to understanding another culture

“Mr. Liebert, why do we have to learn Chinese?” is a commonly asked question by most, if not all, incoming Tech Valley students.

Daniel Liebert, the Tech Valley High School principal, is always quick to say the business community was polled to see what language would be most beneficial for students to learn, and the overwhelming response was Mandarin Chinese. Most of the students — drawn from throughout the Capital Region to attend the experimental school — have been studying a different language and aren’t too keen on switching to Chinese.

As a freshman at Tech Valley four years ago, I was one of those students. I had been studying Spanish for three years and I didn’t like being told that I couldn’t take Spanish anymore, and that I had to take Chinese instead. Chinese is a very difficult and complex language based on characters rather than letters and it’s not going to be picked up overnight.

My first two years at Tech Valley, we took classes in Chinese and did projects, but overall didn’t really use the language for anything outside of the classroom. As a whole, the students became restless and some were angry. Here we were taking a language that we didn’t even want to learn, and we weren’t being given any opportunity to do anything with it.

For some students, that all changed in the summer of 2010 when Tech Valley offered an opportunity to travel to China for a summer camp, but for the majority of the school, the biggest change came in February of 2011. That winter, Tech Valley students were informed that we would be having a group of students from Tianjin No. 41 High School in China come to visit our school, and that a few of us would be hosting these students in our homes during their visit.

I was lucky to be one of the hosts, and when February came around, Li Xin and Yu Yong were both staying with me and my family for a few days.

It became apparent right away that their English was much better than our Chinese, and, while there was many a game of charades that went on during their stay in America, we slowly began to get over the language barrier through talking about shared interests and our ability to laugh at ourselves when something we said got horribly mixed up. Even something as basic as student names could be confusing, as my family had been calling Yu Yong, Sara, when her adopted English name was actually Zero.

Over the course of their stay, the Chinese students got to experience a lot of different parts of American culture like going to a basketball game, going to a 3-D movie, shopping in an American mall, and visiting American schools, but what I think they really took away from the experience were the friends that they made in America.

Zero and I stayed up late one night and she confessed to me how much she loved America and how she wanted to come back here for college. We didn’t always understand each other during the conversation but, with the help of Google Translator, we managed to get most of our points across to one another.

Zero also told me about how she had to get up around 5 a.m. and then bike to school, which started at 7 a.m., only to stay until around 5 p.m. and then have to bike all the way home again.

The whole experience of the Chinese students staying with us really made me see how, even though we were all the same age, we went through such different things in our everyday lives.

When it came time for the Chinese students to return home, there were a lot of tears. We never expected to see each other ever again and that was sad because in such a short time we had bonded with one another.

A whole new world

Tech Valley High School and Tianjin No. 41 High School, which had become sister schools, had other things in mind though, and, in April of that same year, Tech Valley students were once again given the opportunity to go to China.

This trip was far different from the last Tech Valley trip to China because, instead of a camp, it was a tour of China. I jumped at the chance to be able to go to China, not just to see the Tianjin No. 41 students again, but to experience a culture that was so unlike my own.

From the moment that the plane touched down in China, to the moment the plane took off again, it was like we were in a whole new world. The buildings, the people, the smells, the colors, the food —everything was different than in the United States. While in China, we visited Beijing, Tianjin, Xian, and Shanghai, and each place was distinct while still feeling connected as one.

The polluted air in the rapidly industrializing nation made it hard to breathe at first. But I was also made breathless by the beauty — so many bright colors and the ancient history that goes far beyond anything in the United States. The oldest Western sites in the United States date back only centuries, while in China there are many sites that date back thousands of years, like the towering Great Wall of China, which was created stone by stone, by man.

I was careful with my speech in China. Well aware that the word for “chicken” was the same as the word for “prostitute” — only the intonation is different — I never once asked for my favorite dish.

At the center of our visit were the students we had hosted; now they hosted us. They brought us to their school, which is very different from most American high schools; gave us a tour; and then put on a show of both traditional and modern Chinese dance and song.

They hadn’t forgotten us, just as we hadn’t forgotten them. I still get e-mails from both Zero and Li Xin, and Zero even made sure to e-mail me exactly on the day of my birthday, which really touched me.

The time to leave came far too fast and, before we could blink, we were back in the United States. No longer did I, or any other student for that matter, question why we were learning Chinese. We had gotten to see firsthand that learning Chinese would help us.

Small world

The trip to China in April wasn’t the last time Tech Valley heard from Tianjin No. 41, because this month some students and faculty came back once again. I had the chance to talk with the Chinese students, their Tech Valley host students, and local educators at Guilderland High School about their visit last Wednesday.

The first person that I talked to was Nate Hileman, a Tech Valley senior from Schalmont, who has been a host student for the Chinese visitors twice now. When asked about what was different about hosting this year, Nate said that, while the students were shyer and didn’t speak as much English, “There’s a stronger relationship, the bond is growing between the schools.”

Nate then introduced me to both of his students, 13-year-old Jianyong Feng and 16-year-old Yitian Hou, who were both eager to answer any questions that I had for them. It was the first time for both of them in the United States and they enjoyed their time here a lot.

When I asked about the biggest differences between their school and Guilderland, Feng replied, “My school is much harder.” His school isn’t as open as Guilderland, he said. He also said that, in China, the gymnasium isn’t open often for the students to use and that he’s disappointed because he likes to play badminton, football, and basketball.

Feng said that he wanted to come back to the United States in the future “because United States is different from our country. We can, I can learn many differences.”

The principal of Tianjin No. 41, Chen Tianshun, had similar thoughts and, through a translator, said, “We understand this school is very successful school and this is why we come over the country and come over to your school in order to see your school with our eyes and to learn something from your school.” Mr. Chen also said that he and his colleagues had noticed many different teaching styles that they are looking forward to bringing back to China.

Guilderland students were enthusiastic when introduced to the Chinese students and, while some of them taught the Chinese students a dance they had learned, others were brimming with questions on what life was like for a teenager in China. Guilderland students like Steve Zhang translated as the Chinese students asked their American counterparts if they played sports, what their homework was like, what their favorite American food was, and what music they liked to listen to.

They all had a good laugh when one Chinese boy responded with a very cheerful, “Justin Bieber!” as his favorite musician.

Guilderland Superintendent Marie Wiles summed up not only the day’s experience, but the reason why we’re even learning Chinese in the first place by saying, “This world is very large, but today it feels very small. Earlier in one of the classrooms, we talked about having friends in China and here in America, and I hope your visit helps us to be friends now and in the future.”

Even though it’s always upsetting to say goodbye to the Chinese students, it’s become comforting to know that the bonds of friendship really don’t have any limits. What we learned went beyond the sort of business acumen our principal had originally envisioned. Studying Chinese has helped us understand both another culture, and another way of life.

By Xena Pulliam

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