Chinese students get a SLICE of Claremont

On Tuesday, another group of kids graduated in the City of Trees. These weren’t your typical Claremont students but, instead, 39 teens hailing from Weihai Number One High School in China.

The students, aged 15 to 17, gathered in a multipurpose room at El Roble, accompanied by teachers, administrators and members of their host families to celebrate a milestone. They had just finished the first-ever CalSunshine SLICE program, a collaboration between the Claremont Unified School District and a foreign exchange program run by local education advocate and CUSD parent Wei Luo.

The students spent the previous week attending SLICE summer enrichment classes, tackling subjects ranging from filmmaking to volleyball. Working side-by-side with American K-8 students allowed them to be immersed in the English language.

By his sixth day in the United States, 16-year-old Piao Wenquan, also known as “Rocky” by his English-speaking friends, was ready to talk about his new experience. He finds that American students are “very cool and friendly.” When asked what he wants to do for a career, he paused a moment to consider.

“You mean what is my dream?” he asked. “I want to be an actor, but maybe it is impossible.”

Along with providing a crash course in English, SLICE exposed the students to a vastly different educational approach, according to Ma Quishi or “Winston,” the student union president back at his high school.

“The students here behave very casually and the teachers are more flexible,” Winston said. “In China, classes are more formal.”

“I think class here is very relaxing,” Wang “Victoria” Jingyi agreed.

The graduation ceremony was in keeping with the laid-back ambiance. After a lunch of teriyaki chicken, the students shared what they learned in their SLICE classes and in a homeroom course on American culture.

Claremont High School German teacher Jennifer Tsai exposed the students to US institutions ranging from the First Amendment to In-N-Out Burger. She also took them on excursions to the Claremont Village, including stops at eateries like Yogurtland, the Village Grille and Casa de Salsa, a tour of City Hall and a screening of “Transformers” at the Laemmle.

The group also took advantage of the proximity to the Claremont Colleges, visiting the Butterfly Pavilion at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, embarking on a scavenger hunt at the Claremont Colleges and viewing the Native American Collection at the Pomona College Museum.

Ms. Tsai, who helps coordinate a German exchange program at CHS, was approached by SLICE coordinator Jeremy Troche and asked to work with the students from Weihei.

“They are very, very polite and respectful, and they are open to experiencing new things,” she said. 

Ms. Tsai also strived to draw out the often-shy Chinese delegation, engaging the students in exercises like a lively debate on the merits of free speech and another on whether teenagers should be able to date or instead focus their energy on studying.

Studying is, indeed, a big preoccupation for Chinese teens. Joyce Kamau, whose family hosted 17-year-old Lin Huiliang, said that as soon as he arrived, he got down to business.

“The first thing he wanted was the password to the Wi-Fi. Then he wanted to do homework,” she said. 

“At this point, these students are doing nothing but preparing for the college entrance exam,” Mr. Luo explained. “It is very competitive, and they take away a lot of pressure from their families to get into a good college.”

Corrina Comia, who has a 15-year-old daughter at CHS, is hosting two Chinese girls. Her family began hosting German exchange students about eight years ago and, since then, they’ve welcomed students from Brazil and China.

“We call our house the International House,” she joked. “My daughter refers to the fact that she has brothers and sisters all over the world.”

Ms. Comia really appreciates the kindness of Chinese students. At the same time, she worries a bit about them.

“I have to say out of all the students we’ve hosted, they are probably the most withdrawn,” she said. “I think it’s just part of their culture, because they study so much.”

She took one group of Chinese teens to Memorial Park to enjoy a concert in the park, and was surprised by what caught their interest.

“They were so fascinated by the playground—they wanted to play there the whole time,” Ms. Comia shared. “They say they never get to do stuff like this in China. All they do is study, study, study. What I hope they will take back here a little bit of a sense of what it means to play, what it means to be a kid.”

With trips to Disneyland and Universal Studios under their belts, it is likely the Weihei students have gained a greater sense of play. And despite their restraint and the high educational stakes, kids will be kids.

Shopping was a huge source of excitement for the group, which had visited the Desert Hills outlet shopping center in Cabazon. Most of the teens were sporting popular US brands such as Vans and Nike.

The students’ just-below-the-surface boisterousness was evident during the graduation celebration, when they invited their host families to join a lively game of crack-the-whip. It could also be seen when a girl performed a dance to “Bring the Boys Out,” a smash hit by the Korean pop group Girls Generation. “She is usually really shy,” Ms. Tsai marveled. “This is another side of her we’re seeing.”

Ms. Kamau had a fun tidbit to share. When Lin accompanied her and her son, CHS junior Joseph Ngechu, to the mall, the Chinese teen dropped $200 on Slipknot CDs. “I love heavy metal,” he said.

This is the fifth year Mr. Luo has brought students from Weihai to the United States. Since he moved to  America in 1991, he has received a top-notch education, including earning a degree in education leadership from the University of La Verne. His two children attend Claremont schools, which he says are excellent. Having benefited so much from the American education system, he feels motivated to promote the best parts of the American education system in China.

“I think that the United States is very strong in providing an environment where students’ creativity, individuality and personality are respected and nurtured along with critical thinking,” he said.

Mr. Luo believes the experience of living with a host family is as critical as the school component. “It’s important to see the different culture, to observe how family members interact, how we eat and how we express and feel love in American culture.”

As Mr. Troche presented the students with their certificates of completion, he spoke of the value this visit brought to SLICE as a whole.

“Our students have really enjoyed having you in class,” he said. “As much as you have learned from our culture, our students have learned from you.

Both Mr. Luo and Mr. Troche said SLICE would likely welcome more Chinese students next year. Mr. Luo’s aim is to eventually take Claremont students to Weihai Number One High School. It would do much to expose US students to the strengths of the Chinese education system, which includes an emphasis on hard work and self-improvement.

“The US students would be able to visit the campus and see how the students are working over there,” Mr. Luo said. “Maybe they would come back and reflect on what they are doing in school and make some kind of improvement.”

—Sarah Torribio


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