Memories of nine months abroad in China

Updated: 2012-05-23 09:06

By Cheng Guangjin (China Daily)

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Molly Bodurtha, an American high school student, should have gone back home to New Haven, Connecticut, six months ago. But she tried hard to persuade her parents and her home school to allow her to stay longer in China, which has become just like a second home to her.

Presenting a study on education in fluent Chinese to teachers and schoolmates in No 2 Middle School, affiliated with Beijing Normal University, part of the evaluation of her study here, Bodurtha will soon conclude her nine months abroad in China.

Memories of nine months abroad in China

American high school students present their group study on Chinese culture at the No 2 Middle School, affiliated to Beijing Normal University, in Beijing on Friday. They will soon finish a nine-month program in China. Cheng Guangjin / China Daily 

She and another 54 high school students from various parts of the United States arrived in Beijing last August to study Chinese culture and live with Chinese families for a semester or two.

Though she had learned some Chinese in the 9th and 10th grades and knew something about China from Chinese restaurants and news reports in the US, Bodurtha said she had very limited knowledge about China before she came.

But now she lives like a Chinese person, talks to people in Chinese "instinctively", enjoys eating jianbingguozi, a popular snack in North China, bought from stands on streets, and can make dumplings and several other kinds of Chinese food.

From Monday to Friday, Bodurtha usually rides a bike from her host family's house to school, attending classes that include Chinese language, Chinese society and culture and Chinese history, all taught by Chinese teachers.

All of the Chinese teachers are experienced in teaching Chinese overseas. They are accustomed to teaching in an American way that gives students most of the class time in which to practice the language, instead of in the traditional Chinese way, where teachers talk for most of the time, said Zhang Tong, Chinese language coordinator of School Year Abroad China.

The students were divided into six levels at the beginning of the first semester. Some couldn't speak Chinese at all before they came, said Zhang.

"We can provide a good language environment for beginners, in order to lay a firm foundation for studying the Chinese language."

Bodurtha also studies Taichi, martial arts, watercolor painting and calligraphy on weekdays, in addition to math taught by teachers from the US.

The School Year Abroad program was founded in 1964 and recognized as the premier secondary school study abroad program in the US.

Students with the program earn full academic credit for their work overseas and return to the US to apply, and be admitted to, some of the most selective colleges and universities in the country, said Shi Lili, assistant program director with SYA China.

China is the third country that SYA has cooperated with, after Spain and France, said Shi, who has been working for the program since it started in China in 1994.

"SYA China provides an exceptional opportunity to gain true insight into Chinese culture while mastering Mandarin through intensive language instruction," said Jack Creeden, SYA president.

Bodurtha said that, in the US, many people misunderstand Chinese culture. "I want to actually understand it from a Chinese person's perspective."

Kyle Laracey, Bodurtha's classmate from the US, said he came to China because he thought his 11th-grade year back home would be kind of boring and just the same as all the previous years.

After spending nearly nine months in China, Laracey can not only speak fluent Chinese, but also finds that "living in a foreign country for this long, it just changes your attitude, your viewpoint on the whole world".

He said that before coming to China, when he thought about the world in his head, he thought of America as being in the middle with everybody else on the side.

"Now we have moved to China. Japan and Korea are very close to us. We now have a new understanding of China's role in the world," Laracey said.

Bodurtha shares the same feeling. "Our perspective has shifted from being very centered around the US to something more open. We think we value the opinions of other countries more."

During the school year, the students take three trips, totaling more than 30 days, to other parts of China. They visited the southeast province of Fujian last November, the southwest province of Yunnan in winter and will soon set off on a trip to the northwest province of Gansu in late May.

Bodurtha treasures every opportunity to learn more about the Chinese people.

Her "most memorable experience" and "favorite pastime", which she will miss when she returns to the US, was "talking to the cab drivers in Beijing".

Beijing cab drivers are famous for being hospitable and talkative.

"They tell me their favorite recipes for home-cooked food," Bodurtha said. She was impressed by a cab driver who told her his life story of working as a cab driver since he was 14 years old and had proudly sent two children to Peking University, one of the top universities in China.

Bodurtha also remembers another conversation about US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when the cab driver gave her his opinion of America's leadership and diplomacy.

"I love talking with the cab drivers here," she said. "They express a lot of opinion."

Living with the host families is an important part of the program for students.

Bodurtha lives with her Chinese host mother, father and elder sister. She remembers that on the first day she arrived in Beijing, her Chinese sister came to the school to pick her up. They walked home together and the first thing they talked about was Harry Potter.

"She is a Harry Potter fanatic. For her birthday this year I ended up sending her a fake letter from Hogwarts," Bodurtha said.

It's easier for young people from different parts of the world of a similar age to get along together than it is for the parents and students, especially when there are cultural differences.

Bodurtha's Chinese father is a very "social guy", who goes out playing cards and drinking Tsingtao Beer with his friends every night.

"At the beginning he would always tell me to come along, and I would come along," said Bodurtha.

She played cards with them. Her Chinese father would offer drinks to her. "I had to keep objecting, and he was a little offended in the beginning.

"I told him that in the US you don't offer minors alcohol. I know he was just trying to be courteous to the new guest," said Bodurtha.

"The host families, inarguably, are at the core of the program," said Hilde Becker, resident director of SYA China. But she admitted that living with a Chinese family could be quite a challenge for the students.

"There are, of course, misunderstandings. But I think this is part of the experience. We expect our students to be ready and willing to immerse themselves in Chinese culture," said Becker.

Becker expects the students to adjust to their Chinese family's way of life instead of having the Chinese families adjust to them, so "they will gain a lot from that experience."

According to Becker, over the years Chinese parents have been very willing to open their homes to American students. "This is beneficial for both sides. Their own children will benefit from an American student staying with them."

There are certain standards for selecting a host family. The house must be located near the school, the parents must stay in Beijing for most of the time and they must have a loving heart, said Shi.

Most of the families have a child and are subsided 2,600 yuan (about $411) each month by the school, said Shi.