Clean air and hot dogs: Chinese students get a taste of America

Seven middle school students spent two weeks at Truman

2/13/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

​Xianle “Dorothy” Fang has never read “The Wizard of Oz,” despite her name.

Zihan “Lucy” Zhai appreciates the air—in Tacoma, which might surprise longtime Tacomans who remember the infamous “Aroma.” But in her native Beijing, China, a city of 11.5 million, the air pollution gets so bad that car owners can legally drive only on alternate days.

“Also less homework,” she said. “Here you get a holiday and you don’t have all this homework!”

Fang, Zhai and five other Chinese middle school students just spent three weeks at Truman Middle School as part of a cultural immersion experience, not unlike the two weeks a group of Lincoln High School students spent in China last year. Unlike the Lincoln trip, however, the Chinese students spent their school time all at Truman, in the midst of a tour, organized through a partnership with Tower Bridge International, that includes stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Grand Canyon.

While at Truman, the seven visitors were paired up with local students who acted as cultural guides. Hannah White mentored Fang.

“Their birthdays don’t fall on the same day every year,” White said, recounting a birthday celebration during the visit. “Their calendar is different.”

To hear the Chinese students tell it, the clock’s different too.

“In America school ends at 2:45,” said Zhai. “In China the teacher can make you stay after school forever if they like.”

“In China, teacher never finishes the class!” said Fang, followed by a burst of rapid-fire Chinese that drew giggles of agreement from her companions. “They keep you sometimes until nine p.m.!”

The biggest and best difference, though? Lunch.

“Chinese school lunch, it’s not good,” Fang said. “Hot dogs are the best!”

Zhai, who’s been to America before on vacation with her parents, prefers less meat. Her mother works for an information technology company, and her father sells medical equipment to hospitals.

“When we came before it was every day, hamburgers, steak, hamburgers,” she said. “The end of that trip I was eating cup noodle (ramen), every day, just for something different.”

Asked what America has that China lacks, Zhai and Fang both chimed in: “Air!” The smog, especially in Beijing, makes breathing a chore on bad days. They appreciated America’s water quality too.

“You can just drink the water out of the sink,” said Fang, with another giggle. “If we drink this in China we would probably die or something.”

The vast sweep of Chinese history, on the other hand, gives that ancient nation some advantages too. Aside from school lunch.

“More traditional things,” said Zhai. “Lots more things to go and see and do. And the food. Lots more different kinds of food, it’s good. Except for the school lunch.”

This prompted another round-robin of rapid-fire Chinese, which Zhai explained.

“They are arguing about whose school food (at their school in China) is worst.”

Culinary aspects aside, the seven Chinese students—all seventh- or eighth-graders—may find themselves returning to the U.S. for more educational opportunities in the future.

“My teacher told me that students like me are not really good in college in China,” Zhai said. “My teacher told me, kids like you can go to America, and have more opportunities to learn something you like. In China, the schedule in school is already done for you, you don’t really choose.”

Truman English as a Second Language teacher Joellia Pichardo hosts Chinese students every year.

"This is the third year I’ve coordinated and hosted exchange students at Truman," said Pichardo. "Every year, it has been a learning experience filled with enriching cultural exchanges and unforgettable memories, such as celebrating Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day. The cultural exchange program reflects Truman’s school culture of valuing diversity and learning through cultural exchanges."

The Chinese students also gave some of their new American friends an unexpected gift.

“Mostly we showed them around school,” said Jonas Stemp, who paired up with Ronnie Dong. “And they helped us with math.”