Chinese students begin exchange program with South Lake

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published September 28, 2012

 Xi’an Gaoxin Greenwich School teacher He Yamei talks with South Lake Middle School eighth-grader Nashell Kemp Sept. 25 before the students left for a trip to Henry Ford Museum.

Xi’an Gaoxin Greenwich School teacher He Yamei talks with South Lake Middle School eighth-grader Nashell Kemp Sept. 25 before the students left for a trip to Henry Ford Museum.

Photo by Donna Agusti

They’ve come from half a world away, hoping to see how we in St. Clair Shores spend our days.

As part of a sister-school program with the Xi’an Gaoxin Greenwich School in China, 21 students and two teachers are visiting the South Lake School District until Oct. 7, staying with host families in the area.

“Their purpose for coming here is to practice their English and to learn how Americans live,” said South Lake Schools’ Curriculum Director John Thero. “So they will be going to school with our kids, and then, in the afternoons, we’ll be taking them out to various places in (metro) Detroit.”

The Xi’an Gaoxin Greenwich School in Shaanxi Province includes students in seventh- through ninth-grades, so a few are shadowing students at South Lake High School. Most, however, are going through the day with students at South Lake Middle School. In the afternoons, the students — American hosts and Chinese visitors — are taking in the sites around metro Detroit, including the Henry Ford Museum, a Detroit Tigers game, a walking tour of Detroit, Lake St. Clair Metropark and the Ford Rouge Factory Tour.

Chinese eighth-grader Wang Shulei, 13, said she’s enjoying the trip so far.

“I think your people friendly, and the class is different from our class,” she said. “This class is very free. They can talk with others. When our teacher talk, we can’t talk with others.”

America, she said, is “beautiful and peaceful and comfortable.”

Thero wrote the original grant proposal for the sister schools program and traveled to China about 18 months ago. That trip laid the foundation for a memorandum of agreement with Xi’an Gaoxin Greenwich School, and two of their teachers visited the district last year.

“This year was the first year that we’re exchanging students,” he said.

South Lake Middle School Mandarin teacher Fang MacCallumMhor said they have been trying to get South Lake students familiar with the Chinese culture. Having the foreign students shadow them for two weeks is like a crash course.

“They’re kind of shy,” MacCallumMhor said. “They come here — everything is so different.”
And while the students from Xi’an Gaoxin Greenwich School have come to practice their English, for the American students, it’s a chance to work on their Mandarin.

“Slowly, they get to know them,” she said. “They are very proud of themselves when they can understand them.”

A group of 15-20 students from South Lake will leave in March 2013 for a two-week trip to Xi’an Gaoxin Greenwich School. That school is much larger than South Lake Middle School, however — it has about 2,000 students in seventh- through ninth-grades.

“We’re trying to get them prepared,” MacCallumMhor said. “Culturally, get them used to their customs.”

She said they hope to continue the exchange program on an annual basis.

The district began offering Mandarin classes at the elementary level last year; the program has been in place at South Lake Middle School since 2006.

Lauren Wells, principal of South Lake Middle School, said she was hoping that having the exchange students in the halls would expose all of her students to a different culture and different ideas than their own.

She was able to travel to China to visit Xi’an Gaoxin Greenwich School last year.

“That was my first experience on another continent,” she said. The students from China offer “a different perspective as students are thinking about things and learning about things.”

A day into the two-week stint, South Lake seventh-grader Anna Jackson said it’s been “interesting.”

“I thought it’d be really cool to help a student see what American life is like,” she said. “She didn’t understand something, (so) I helped her.”

Jackson wants to be an exchange student herself in 2013 or 2014.

“I want to see what China’s like,” as well as visit the school and the Great Wall, she said.

As for the Chinese students, 13-year-old eighth-grader Jiang Mingzhi said he likes the “relaxing and interesting” lifestyle of the American students.

“First, they don’t have much homework,” he said. “In China, we’re really busy. We finish our homework at 11 p.m. American (kids) are very friendly and kind.”