Half a world away from home
Chinese students at Wausau West get culture surprise
NORA G. HERTEL
USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN
WAUSAU - Andy Ding tried water skiing on his first weekend with a Wisconsin host family. After that he attended a Badgers football game, went tubing in the Wausau snow and met a puppy for the first time, said his host mother, Yolanta Baumann.
Andy, 18 and known as Yifan in his native China, spent his senior year at Wausau West High School and with the Baumann family. He’s one of four tuition- paying students in a new exchange program in Wausau and will graduate from high school here this spring.
Andy wants to see and experience the world, he said, that’s why he joined the exchange program. He will study psychology at the University of Minnesota next year.
"He’s very gung ho," Baumann said of Andy on that first weekend skiing at the cabin.
Andy learned English and speaks it well but didn’t receive a lot of cultural preparation before he came to Wisconsin.
"We need to experience these things ourselves, to have our own understanding," he said.
Experiencing American life at Wausau West allows Zoey Xu, Andy’s classmate, to see the world two different ways, she said.
Zoey, known as QianZi in China, willstart college at the University of Wisconsin- Fox Valley with plans to transfer to Madison after two years.
Most students in high school exchange programs don’t actually graduate from American high schools, said
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Thom Hahn, secondary education director in the Wausau School District. The new program in Wausau allows Chinese students to do that, because they come on an international student visa, rather than a cultural exchange visa common to foreign exchange programs.
The Chinese students learn conversational English and earn credits in Wisconsin schools, which then makes it easier for them to attend college here.
"Part of this is that cultural exchange — ‘What is it like in your country?’" Hahn said. "They come as tuition-paying students. So that’s a help for the district as well."
Two years ago Wausau and Marshfield school administrators went to China to establish relationships and a foundation for the exchange program.
Officials in the UW System spearheaded the program and related pieces, including a 19-day program at UW Marathon County for teachers from China, a week-long program for elementary and middle school Chinese students to witness an American school and summer language camps for Chinese students, Hahn said. Wausau might eventually send students over for shorter, cultural exchanges, he said.Andy and all the exchange students are experiencing family life with host siblings after growing up as only children under China’s one child policy, which ended in 2015. Wausau West junior Bennett Baumann pushed his family to host a foreign student. The family business is the ginseng producing Baumann Farms.Andy also had to adjust to life with the Baumann family dog, a 12-year-old German shepherd named Jazz, said Yolanta Baumann. "We’ve just been trying to expose him to typical life."
Zoey, 17, was challenged by two pillars of Wisconsin life: a cold, dry winter and an abundance of cheese. She likes cheese on pizza and hamburgers but was surprised by its ubiquity.
"Cheese, cheese, everything cheese," she said. "Wisconsin people eat cheese like candy bars."
Zoey will study business as her parents wish, so that she can run her family’s company, a factory that produces clothing.
She was struck by how differently her teachers in China and the U.S. covered the Vietnam War. In China she heard: "We did the right thing. We did the right thing," she said. And at Wausau West her teacher acknowledged, "We lost a lot of young men," Zoey said.Chinese students have to get good grades and apply to attend high school there, Hahn said. Classes run six days a week, with days longer than 12 hours, Andy said.
He and Zoey both enjoy the extra time in Wausau for their hobbies.
They both play video games. Zoey does so with online friends around the world. Andy has also been playing guitar at the Baumanns’ house. Chinese educators want to send students to the U.S. to improve their collaborative and problem- solving skills, said Hahn, who hopes the program grows.The Wausau School Board has placed a cap on the program so Chinese transfer students can’t exceed 2 percent of the high school population, which would be about 25 at West and 20 at East.
The four pioneering Chinese students will graduate on May 31 all from West. Andy’s mother will come from China and stay with the Baumanns to watch him walk.
"I know (Andy will) do well, because he’s very focused," Baumann said. "It’s been a great experience, a learning experience."
Nora G. Hertel: firstname.lastname@example.org
NORA G. HERTEL/USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN