Bloomfield Hills Chinese language students welcome Taiwanese e-pals

By: Brendan Losinski | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 6, 2017

 As part of an e-pal program in which they correspond throughout the year over email, Bloomfield Hills Chinese language students and English language students from Taiwan have traveled to each other’s countries for the last two years.

As part of an e-pal program in which they correspond throughout the year over email, Bloomfield Hills Chinese language students and English language students from Taiwan have traveled to each other’s countries for the last two years.

Photo provided by Shira Good

BLOOMFIELD HILLS — The idea of pen pals may seem outdated to some, but with some modern updates, it’s allowing Chinese language students at Bloomfield Hills High School to make connections with students on the other side of the globe.

The “e-pal” program was begun by Bloomfield Hills School District Chinese teacher Angela Lee-Jan. She and one of her colleagues in Taiwan have been encouraging their students to connect throughout the last two years.

“In 2014, I and a friend who is a teacher in Taiwan, Ms. (Cathy) Chung, talked about having students start an e-pal program,” said Lee-Jan. “The students would write to each other based on what they learn in their classes. We set a task each month, and they could talk about hobbies or school life or something else. My students even sent a gift to their friends in Taiwan for Christmas, and they got a gift for Chinese New Year.”

Lee-Jan, who was born in Taiwan, met Chung while Chung was guest teaching in the Detroit Public Schools system. As two of the only public school Chinese teachers in the area, they got to know each other and formed a friendship.

As the pair corresponded, they wanted to expand their own friendship to their respective students.

“Two years ago they came to visit us here, and 20 students came,” said Lee-Jan. “Twenty families opened their homes so they could stay here. They would shadow their e-pal buddies to learn about the students’ lives. We went on a field trip to the (Detroit Institute of Arts), and they went to sports practice with them. Last year, in 2016, we visited them for three days in a similar way, shadowing them at school, and our students learned about Taiwan culture there.”

The students repeated this the following year, with each class visiting the other’s country. This year, Lee-Jan said, there was no time for a field trip to the DIA, but they still got to spend time with their e-pals and host families.

“They arrived Thursday, Oct. 19, and we had a small party and the kids welcomed them,” she said. “We unfortunately didn’t have time to do a trip to anywhere like last time, but they did go to the football game that Friday and got to go to a cider mill, though. It was only 15 students from Taiwan plus one teacher this time.”

Bloomfield Hills High School students and staff welcomed the visitors with open arms and worked hard to show them more about American culture.

“I thought it was an amazing event,” said Bloomfield Hills School District Superintendent Robert Glass. “I was invited by the students, who held a welcome event for them. It was something very special and was organized completely by the students. It was wonderful to see the marching band and cheerleaders perform after school for the visitors, and it was heartwarming to see the Taiwanese students welcomed like this and see our students take the initiative to reach out to other cultures.”

Lee-Jan said the program serves a variety of functions for both the American and Taiwanese students.

“We work so hard to boost this program, and we want to really encourage them to use their new language outside the classroom and do that right now,” she said. “They talk to the students, and they can get to know how their school system is different from those in Taiwan. They get to see a wider vision of the whole world.”

Glass said that exposing students to other cultures and teaching them how to make connections with people from around the planet is increasingly important with the interconnectivity of today’s culture.

“I think anytime you can broaden your experience, it can help you see from multiple experiences and enriches your own life,” said Glass. “Many of our students will be working and living and communicating abroad in the future, and helping them learn to do that and build empathy is just a great way to help improve their futures. I think this attitude is the secret sauce that makes our district a special place.”

The program is hardly set in stone, according to Lee-Jan, but she hopes they are able to continue it into the foreseeable future.

“We are staying with them to visit them for a few days in the spring after we visit Beijing, which we were able to do on the last trip as well,” said Lee-Jan. “We are not very sure if they will be back next year, but we hope it will keep going, and we are playing it by ear.”