Sending American exchange teachers and students to China

  1. The parents of students in my district are worried about safety in China. What should I tell them?

China is a relatively safe place to visit. Many people speak English, especially in large cities.  American visitors are often deeply impressed by the degree of friendliness and hospitality displayed by Chinese towards foreigners. The streets and public transportation in the cities are very safe and easy to navigate. However, China is a developing country:  it still faces food safety issues; there are lots of new drivers on the streets, so traffic violations are common; Chinese street vendors can exploit outsiders. It is important for travellers to be aware of these problems before departing.

  1. What is proper etiquette when meeting someone new in China?

Do not bow to your Chinese visitor – right continent, wrong country.  Handshakes are very common in China today.  For encounters in professional settings, it is customary to exchange business cards.  The correct etiquette for handing someone a business card in China is to hold your card with both hands, with the text facing your counterpart.  Receive business cards with both hands and actually read the card before putting it away. Students should also hand teachers their assignments with both hands, as it is a sign of respect.

3. We’d like to send our students to China for one semester, but we are worried about missed classes.  How do other schools handle this?

Semester-long exchange programs provide in-depth exposure to Chinese culture and emersion in the language. This experience on a college application can trump AP class credits and can open doors to study and career opportunities not previously imagined. Some schools prefer to send second semester seniors, who have acquired most of their credits required to graduate and have submitted college applications. Sophomores and juniors will need to work carefully with their guidance counselors to be sure that they will have accrued all required graduation credits. The teachers who accompany them to China can also teach courses required for graduation while the group is abroad. For example:

  • English credit: read, discuss, and write about Chinese literature, history, philosophy and religions.
  • Language credit: Chinese language classes at the host school.
  • E. credit: participate in Chinese martial arts or dance classes.
  1. Our partner Chinese school is offering dormitory accommodations for our students and an apartment for our teachers. We much prefer a host family experience for everyone. What can we do?

Remind your partner school that you will be providing host family stays for their students and teachers, and that you consider that experience one of the most valuable aspects of an exchange program. Reassure them that the accommodations need not be grand. As long as there is food, shelter, and a welcoming family, your students and teachers will feel well cared for. If the partner school continues to insist on dormitory stays, negotiate having your students and teachers visit or stay with host families on the weekends. Be pleasant but firm about this request. Host family stays are usually the most memorable part of the entire experience.

  1. How can we prepare our newly selected exchange teachers and students for living in China?

Orientation sessions and language and culture study are essential in preparing the exchange group bound for a very different culture. You have selected students and teachers who are mature, curious, thoughtful, and adventurous. If they prepare together and bond as a group this will enable them to support one another throughout their stay in China.

They should know that there will be warm, caring hosts to welcome them who want them to be comfortable and happy. Our exchange teachers and students should realize that their new Chinese friends will be very polite, will not criticize, and will compliment generously, regardless of their personal opinions. It helps if our exchange students and teachers remember to be good listeners, polite, appreciative and sensitive to their hosts. It is important that they try to absorb and assimilate as much as possible. The personal impact of such a unique experience is powerful.

Travelers can expect to feel excitement as well as some disorientation upon arrival in China. The sights, sounds, smells, foods, and routines will all be new. That is part of the fun and the learning. Some culture shock is normal, and one adjusts. In fact, the first few weeks are a prime time to take as many photographs and record as many reactions as possible. Everything will seem surprisingly normal and routine within a short time. A bit of homesickness should also be expected. There is plenty to challenge the most able traveler dealing in another language in a place with different customs. It helps when group members support each other and talk things over.

  1. What should our exchange teachers and students know to have a happy and successful stay with a Chinese host family?

Living in a Chinese home is the best way for Americans to gain an understanding of Chinese culture. A Chinese family is typically close-knit, with each member taking great responsibility for the others. Chinese families are sometimes reluctant to host because they fear that they cannot meet American standards for space or comfort. However, Americans quickly become comfortable because basic needs are graciously met. American visitors should keep personal things neat and out of the way, and the volume of noise low. They must assure the hosts that they are comfortable by expressing gratitude regularly. It is the enduring friendship of family and friends that exchange students and teachers remember and value in the years to come.

Food is plentiful and delicious, with many new dishes to try and flavors to enjoy. Eating is part of the adventure. Host families will spend a lot of time and money to please their American guests, so students and teachers should try to avoid requesting special foods and be sure to express their appreciation regularly. It is smart to eat only cooked or peeled fruits and vegetables, and drink only boiled or bottled water to avoid illness.

  1. What can our exchange group expect to experience at a Chinese school?

American teachers and students are very visible In a Chinese school and they receive a lot of attention, unlike Chinese students in culturally diverse American schools. To the Chinese, they represent American attitudes, lifestyles, and values. Consequently, they need to be careful of their behavior, dress, demeanor, and use of language. Being a part of an exchange program means being a “junior ambassador.”

American students will be assigned to a class with Chinese classmates. Being a part of a class is an important part of the experience because students in Chinese classes stay together for all of their courses; only the teachers move from classroom to classroom. The classroom is where close friendships are often made. Long after their return, our students often talk about missing their Chinese classmates. The Chinese school will probably provide special classes for the Americans in language study, history, martial arts, calligraphy, brush painting, and/or music.

  1. What will be expected of our exchange teachers while in China?

American teachers are usually asked to teach classes in English conversation, writing, and listening. They supplement the regular teaching of English, which emphasizes reading and grammar in preparation for rigorous college entrance examinations. Each American teacher can build on his or her own interests and resources for this purpose. Vocabulary work, patterned repetition, group work, and opportunity to practice speaking and writing should be a focus of each lesson. Before leaving for China, it is a good idea to collect some teaching materials for use in China from ELL teachers or from former exchange teachers. Teachers should always have a few ideas in mind in case they are asked to present a lesson on the spur of the moment, as many plans are made at the last minute in China. They should expect to be observed sometimes by curious Chinese teachers who are interested in learning about American teaching techniques and materials. At the end of the stay, America teachers might want to ask the Chinese principal for a written evaluation of their work for their professional files at home.

American students may be asked by English teachers to assist in their classes and to prepare brief lessons about American sports, music, holidays, movies, and life in an American school. American exchange teachers and students will want to take along photos of school, home, friends and families to share. Chinese students are eager to imitate the American way of speaking English, so Americans need to be aware of being good models, by speaking slowly and clearly.

  1. What medical precautions should we take and what should we know about health care in China?

In the cities, good medical care is available and relatively inexpensive. There are many competent Western and Chinese trained physicians. American families should check their health insurance coverage for travel abroad and consult with physicians to update vaccinations and arrange for a supply of special medications.

  1. What are the best ways for families to communicate while the exchange group is in China?

Ask your hosts and colleagues about using mobile phones, e-mail, fax, mail delivery, and other communication options. E-mail service is convenient and quite reliable, though gmail is not always accessible in China. Exchange teachers and students may want to take their own lap top computers for Skype and email. Facebook is not available in China. Chinese families might offer their computers to their guests to use for email. For important communications, use multiple modes and ask for verification. Unless the family has a special international rate, telephone service is relatively expensive, so guests should avoid incurring extra costs to their host families. It is better to buy an international telephone card at the post office or in most shops. You can also buy Skype credit and use that to call phones in the U.S.

  1. Our exchange group wants to see some other places in China after our stay at our partner school. Could we make these travel plans from the U.S. or should we make them using a travel agent in China?

The American exchange group needs to first agree on locations and the approximate amount they are able to spend. There are travel agents in the U.S. who specialize in travel in Asia who will arrange a trip for students and teachers at reasonable price. Or you might find a trusted Chinese travel agent, using school connections, who can arrange comparatively inexpensive travel by plane, train, or bus, plus hotel accommodations. Be sure to discuss the dates of travel with your Chinese partner school.

Don’t let travel plans become the central focus of the exchange trip. Remind the group that the purpose of an exchange experience is to learn through home and school stays. They can travel to China as tourists anytime, but never again will they be a part of a Chinese school and family.

  1. How can we express our gratitude for the generous hospitality extended by our host families and partner school?

 Gift giving is a long honored tradition in China. The American exchange group will want to be prepared.

  • Host gifts: Exchange teachers and students will want to take some special gifts to their host families to present when they arrive, and also have some small gifts to give others who invite them to dinner or take them sightseeing. American items that represent their home and school are very appropriate. Please check labels to avoid taking things made in China back to China.
  • School gifts: The American group should take an official gift from its school to present to the partner school in China. Something that represents the visiting school and can be displayed at the Chinese school is most appreciated. It does not need to be expensive, but it should have meaning and express friendship.
  • Farewell Banquet: It is traditional in China to express thanks by hosting a banquet. The American exchange students and teachers will want to thank their host families, school administrators, and teachers who have been involved with the exchange. Chinese friends will help make reasonably priced arrangements at a local restaurant. This is a time for heartfelt speeches, preferably in Chinese, of appreciation from the American teachers and students.
  1. We have heard about reverse culture shock. What might we experience as we return home?

The returning students and teachers have a great deal to tell their family and friends, who cannot begin understand what the traveler has experienced. Once again, the sights, sounds, smells, foods and routines will be different. Some reverse culture shock can be expected. They will see their schools, families, friends, and communities with fresh eyes and will have new insights and deeper understanding of their own lives, as well as the lives of friends on the other side of the world. It can take months and even years to process these fascinating experiences. Talking with each other and with former travelers can be very helpful.

Returning exchange participants are so full of their China experiences and have so much to say that they will need a forum to share their experiences with their families, school, and community. Plan a presentation that addresses different aspects of the trip: school life, family life, travel adventures, free time, health issues, and any unusual experiences that occurred. These sessions can be very moving.

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