USC-Chinese exchange students note cultural differences

Published Mar 6, 2013 at 11:05 am (Updated Mar 6, 2013 at 11:05 am)

After almost a month in the United States, a group of 22 exchange students and their teachers are now back in China sharing tales of their trip with friends and family.

As part of an exchange program with Upper St. Clair High School, the 15 and 16 year-olds arrived in the U.S. on Jan. 28 for a tour of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., before their arrival in USC on Feb. 2.

While here, students had the opportunity to experience life in a typical American household, learning about American food, culture and daily activities. Abby (Ding, Dingjiahe), a 10th grade exchange student, said that her host family was “very, very friendly” and that she had learned a lot of American customs while living there.

Abby said her host family spent time taking her around Pittsburgh, a city that she thought was “very beautiful.”

Kevin (Guo, Ming), an economics and social studies teacher traveling with the students, also enjoyed Pittsburgh, especially a visit to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. He said a highlight of the trip for the Chinese students was getting the chance to visit different colleges and speak with representatives from the colleges.

Abby, who wants to attend Columbia University to study finance, agreed that getting to see so many colleges was one of her favorite things about the visit.

Kevin said that the exchange trip was a great way for the Chinese students to experience American school life and American culture. He added that observing American teachers was a great experience for him as well. When comparing his AP economics class to the one at Upper St. Clair, Kevin said there are many similarities – he uses the same textbook in his class as the one used in USC. “I think we can learn from each other.”

Jason (Zhu, Zhiqiang), a high school chemistry teacher from China, also enjoyed observing the classes in the district. One thing that struck him was the creativity teachers in USC have in decorating their classrooms, especially at the elementary level.

“I love the students and people here,” said Jason. “The student behavior is good and the students are respectful.”

Jason said that at the elementary and middle school levels, Chinese students usually finish their school day around 3:30, but parents often enroll their child in an elective club or class after school, with math being the most popular activity. He said that since young children need play, in China there has been a renewed emphasis on it during the last 10-20 years.

Jason said the students were enjoying the extra-curricular activities offered at the high school, and he really enjoyed the high school basketball games, especially the USC-Mt. Lebanon game. “It was amazing,” said Jason. “Everyone was so professional.”

One thing that surprised Jason was the taxes that Americans have to pay for education, but he said it gives schools freedom to enhance the educational experience.

Jason was also surprised at Upper St. Clair’s foreign language program. He said USC starts their foreign language instruction earlier than the Chinese, and offers a wider range of languages. He said most of their students study only English, although some Chinese schools near Korea and Russia also offer those languages.

Abby said that offering so many different classes and each student having a unique schedule was something that she thought was very different. Jason explained that in China, 10 million people could be living in a geographical area smaller than Pittsburgh. Because of their large population, most Chinese students are given a set schedule and can’t choose the subjects they are going to take.

Jason said that there are some misconceptions about China, and during the last five to 10 years, the Chinese people have gained more freedom. Economically, the standard of living has gone up, to the point where people now own private cars. With more people on the Internet, he said people have more information and know the latest news.

Jason said that Beijing has a one-child per family policy, so he thought the students enjoyed having “siblings” during their visit.

“I think most of them would like to stay in the U.S. with their host families and continue to learn and live here,” said Jason.

Arranging the details for the trip was Upper St. Clair High School Assistant Principal Jace Palmer.

Having the Chinese students come to USC is gratifying to Palmer, who had a goal of making an exchange program a reality. In October 2010, a Chinese principal visited the district, and Palmer said his two trips to China helped forge relationships with the Chinese. He said the Chinese did a lot of research and knew of the school district’s reputation before permitting the exchange, which Palmer believes is a first in western Pennsylvania.

While the Upper St. Clair community has participated in exchange programs with students from Spain, Germany, France, Italy and Thailand, Palmer said arranging for visitors from China has posed unique challenges. It was very difficult for the Chinese students to receive visas to study in the U.S., but he worked with the Chinese government and educational system, as well as a travel liaison in Philadelphia, to arrange most of the details.

For Palmer, the culmination of his goal for a Chinese exchange program would be to arrange a trip for Upper St. Clair students to visit China. He is hoping that if there is enough student interest, he will be able to make that goal a reality this June.

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