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DOG DAYS IN AMERICA CHINESE STUDENTS EXPERIENCE NEW YEAR IN FOREIGN LAND.

Byline: Mark Kellam Valley News Writer

A group of Chinese students visited the Valley recently to learn about American customs, particularly how Southern Californians celebrate a festive holiday native to their homeland.

Many of the visiting Chinese students and their host families went to a Chinese New Year banquet at the Empress Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles sponsored by Families with Children from China. The students were here through EF Educational Homestay Programs, which annually matches Chinese students with host families for a two-week visit.

During their stay, each of the students took an English name.

One visitor, Stella, 14, whose Chinese name is Xiaorui Tu, noticed a big difference in the way the Chinese New Year is celebrated in the two countries: In the United States, the festivities include large community events. In China the new year celebration is much more intimate, ushered in with small gatherings of families and close friends.

Stella stayed with a family in Sherman Oaks.

Another visitor, Sam (Kun Feng), 12, who stayed with a different Sherman Oaks family, noticed that both countries ring in the Chinese New Year with a bang, but each in a different way. Sam said revelers in China light fireworks from midnight until around 1:30 a.m. In the United States, fireworks are illegal in many cities, so revelers adopt alternatives. At the FCC banquet, children simulated the sound of fireworks by stepping on large sheets of bubble wrap.

There was also a parade around the room, including Chinese dragons. Many guests, both Chinese and American, were dressed in traditional Chinese clothing.

The Chinese New Year starts with the new moon on the first day of the new year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. This year, the Chinese New Year started on Jan. 29 and it celebrated the Year of the Dog.

Comparing the two cultures, Sam said he noticed that Americans in general are more friendly to strangers than Chinese. ``The people here are kind. They're always helping other people,'' Sam said, adding that Americans are more likely to tell a joke to someone who is only an acquaintance.

He said that in China the more impersonal atmosphere even spreads onto the streets. Some drivers don't bother to stop at traffic lights in China, he said. ``They just go right on by,'' he said, gesturing as though he was a pedestrian dodging a passing vehicle.

One thing that Jenny (Jinwan Dai) had to learn while in the U.S. was how to eat with a knife and fork. Also, cutting meat was foreign to her. In China, everyone eats with chopsticks and the meat is already cut into bite-size pieces, 15-year-old Jenny explained.

She stayed with the Golestaneh family of North Hills. The Golestanehs have two girls - Sheila and Roxy - who are gymnasts. They invited Jenny to a gymnastics meet and to a Girl Scout camp-out.

Alice Engelmann and her partner Cindy Sanchez of Sherman Oaks hosted Sam and said they decided to host foreign exchange students for their son, Parker. Because both women work full-time jobs, it's hard for them to travel much to foreign countries. Hosting a foreign exchange student lets their son get acquainted with different cultures.

The cultural learning went both ways, of course. Parker, who is a Cub Scout, brought Sam along to his Scouting activities, including taking a spin at a pinewood derby and getting in touch with nature at a camp-out. ``There are so many trees here,'' Sam said. ``In China, there aren't so many trees.''

Last summer, Engelmann and Sanchez hosted a 15-year-old Austrian boy. One activity Parker and both his foreign exchange visitors always enjoyed was video games. ``It's a universal language,'' Engelmann said.

Sherman Oaks residents Joe and Bernice Mahfet have been very involved in hosting students through EF EHP. Last year, they agreed to host two girls, one from Spain and the other from France.

Lee Rappaport, program coordinator for EF EHP, then asked if they could host - for a short time - an Austrian girl whose host family was on vacation and would return five days after she arrived. Rappaport then asked if a Russian boy could stay with them, too. The boy was allergic to dogs, and all the other available families had pets. The Mahfets do not.

After five days, the Austrian girl left to stay with her host family. However, Joe and Bernice got a call from her a few days later. She was crying and asked if she could come back and stay with them because she had bonded so closely with them. They agreed, and ended up hosting all four students the rest of their stay.

LaTanya Potts of Encino said she hosted 14-year-old John (Wanmuqing Wang) because one of her sons recently left for college and the house seemed a bit empty. She still has a son and daughter, Karl and Tamari, at home. Potts also wanted to show a Chinese student that in the U.S., there are many types of families. ``I'm a single parent and I thought it would be good for him to see that a home can go on with only one parent,'' Potts said.

Paul (Bo Xia), the EF EHP tour escort from China, said the best way to learn a foreign language is to completely immerse yourself in the culture. ``In China, there's no place where you can go to speak English 24 hours a day,'' he said.

Harry (Guozhong Li) enjoyed visiting the Peterson Automotive Museum, which features a bevy of classic and vintage cars. What he appreciated most, though, was how his host family, the Bianchis of Studio City, helped him with his English skills. ``My English is much better now,'' he said, smiling.

Stella said she was at first afraid to come to the United States. ``My English is not good,'' Stella, 14, said. Her apprehension vanished, though, when she arrived at the Sherman Oaks home of Mark and Dana Guterman. ``Now that I came here, I feel very good and happy. Americans are our friends.''

EF EHP also sponsors students from foreign countries for a four-week stay during the summer, Rappaport said. This year, students will be coming from Italy, China, France, Spain, Austria and Germany. For more information about the program, call (818) 784-9422 or e-mail HomestayStudents(at)aol.com.

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) (Above) Holly, front, whose Chinese name is Yanyan Shi, is welcomed to Southern California by her host family, the Youngs of Tarzana - Makena, left, Otha and Brenda.

(2 -- color) The Chinese students and their host families visit Disneyland (left). Most of them said Space Mountain was their favorite park attraction.

(3 -- color) Lisa Stern wears a colorful Chinese jacket at the Chinese New Year banquet sponsored by Families with Children from China. She's with her visiting student from China, Angel (Xiao Xiao Chang), and her adopted Chinese daughter, Maya Lin.

(4 -- color) Harry, whose Chinese name is Guozhong Li, stands in front of a classic hot rod at the Peterson Automotive Museum, one his favorite places he and his host family visited.

(5 -- color) Viola, right, whose Chinese name is Liwei Gong, marches at the head of the Lunar (Chinese) New Year Parade sponsored by Families with Children from China. She's with her host father, Greg Goldstone, and his adopted Chinese daughter, Hannah Mei.
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Title Annotation:Valley News
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 15, 2006
Words:1227
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