Last week, eight students from China took a break from auditing classes at the Pen Ryn private school in Fairless Hills to get a different view on American life: that of its senior citizens. The group, comprised of late elementary and early junior high school students, took a tour of the Bensalem Senior Center.
It’s a smaller trip than others scheduled during their three-week visit, which coincides with the holiday surrounding the Chinese New Year. The five girls and three boys also visited the United Nations in Manhattan, New York and are headed to Washington, D.C. There, they’ll visit Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick at his office and tour the White House.
“They get to see what the American system is like,” explained Bernard Salera, president of the Asian American Cultural Exchange Association, or AACEA, in Bensalem. “You can meet your congressman, talk to him and shake his hand.”
The students’ visit is only a “taste,” he said, of the full experience the association offers. Each year, the group works with 20 to 50 Chinese students who come to the U.S. every year until they graduate high school. Most begin coming over in seventh or eighth grade with plans to attend college here.
“Some even opt to hold back a year of school so they can learn the language better,” noted Salera.
They often stay with the same host family year after year, for a truly immersive experience into American culture — which also includes small things that many people here many not even realize is different from life in China.
“We tell them they may get chore
s, like to take out the trash or clean their rooms, and it’s not a punishment,” said Salera. “Because of the one-child rule, they don’t have siblings and often don’t have to do those things at home.”
That, in a big way, is the reason for a smaller excursion like the one on Tuesday. Here, the students picked up on small differences between the cultures, like “county” being essentially a synonym for “district.”
The more popular spots on this tour, according to the students, were the ceramics and arts rooms, where they got to see what local seniors are working on.
“That is gorgeous!” exclaimed one girl, when a woman held up her painting.
Outside the senior center, they’re also learning the many differences between the cultures. Twelve-year-old Thomas Zhou, for instance, appreciated the opportunities to explore the culture here. At home, he’s in school from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and has at least two hours of homework after that.
“We’ve had more time to experience things,” he said.
There are also fewer students in each class, and more “talkative” ones at that, according to fourteen-year-old Lisa Wang. “In China, it’s very quiet in the classrooms,” she said. Here, however, “Students talk and express their ideas.”
Already, noted Salera, a few of the students here have decided to pursue high school education in the U.S. after the experiences they’ve had so far.
“They’ll get the full spectrum of American culture and the chance to go to the best college they can,” he said.