Exchange students experience America

Milaca High School exchange students Chih-Chieh Yu, Lina Rees, Alessia Gunawan, Shi Yi Yang and Nien-Chen Lee (not pictured) share their experiences of living in a new, strange country.

Milaca High School’s latest crop of exchange students received one of the most eye-opening experiences of their new surroundings this past week when temperatures plunged to near zero degrees. Minnesotans may be accustomed to such bitter cold conditions, but for the China, Taiwan, Germany and Italy natives, the chilly wind that greeted them Monday morning before school was an icy reminder that they are far from home.

For 10th-grader Chih-Chieh Yu, the weather is the starkest contrast between that of his hometown of Tai Chung, Taiwan, the third largest city of that nation and Milaca, Minnesota, where he finds himself today.

“Everything is different, but the weather is the biggest,” he said. “We don’t get froze — ever.”

He has heard of such things as skiing, snowshoeing and ice fishing, but the concepts are vague and he has yet to see them in person.

“I’ve seen snow once — on a mountain,” he said laughing. “Not everywhere on everything.”

Eleventh-grader Lina Rees has also been surprised at just how cold Minnesota winters can be, but that didn’t come as the biggest shock to the Klein Lengden, Germany native.

“I have to study much more in Germany. I have 16 subjects instead of six. It’s just different,” she said of the American school system. “It’s a lot easier here.”

Studying abroad in a region largely settled by German immigrants, Rees hasn’t had the culture shock that her fellow exchange students have experienced, something that surprised her.

“The culture is not the same, but I thought it would be much different,” she said. “The music is totally the same. We listen to a lot of American music.”

Shi Yi Yang is from a small town known as Dali City, China — small from a Chinese perspective, but the southern city is home to more than 600,000 residents.

It wasn’t adjusting to small town life with host parents, Arnold and Cheryl Simcox, that was the biggest challenge for Shi, but the new-found ample free time American education provides him.

“The biggest difference, of course, is school life,” the junior said. “In China, we high school students study from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. We have two hours at noon when we take a break.”

While he studies in a foreign language in a foreign place, some of his classmate are in awe of how quickly he can pick up the material.

“Many students ask me about China’s education system,” he said. “Because in math, the teacher is still teaching and I’m done with the homework.”

Lecce, Italy native Alessia Gunawan finds her first senior year in high school not so different from the second senior year she will spend in Italy when she returns to her usual school next year. After splitting her time between the nearly 100,000 resident city of Italy and that of Jakarta, Indonesia where her father lives, and one of the largest cities in the world, adjusting to small town Milaca has been more of a culture shock than the actual culture.

“I’ve never lived in a small town, so I’m not used to it,” she said. “Fortunately, we live close to St. Cloud or the Cities.”

Gunawan’s time spent in one of Indonesia’s international schools — not far from where President Barrack Obama studied as a child — has honed her English skills, leaving little notice of an accent. She has noticed differences between her homes in Italy and Indonesia and her home here with host parents Linda Scherer and Kevin Wojahn.

“Here, sports are very important, but in Italy we don’t have sports in school,” she said. “So if you want to join, you have to go to a private organization.”

Exchange student Nien-Chen Lee, like Yu, is also from Taiwan. Many thousands of miles away from her hometown of Miaoli, Lee said it’s comforting to have someone from home close by.

“Sometimes we can chat with our language,” Lee said. “So that’s nice.”

She agreed with her fellow exchange students that some subjects taught here are much easier than back home, such as math, but that others are more difficult. She said physics is her favorite class at her school in Taiwan, but picking a favorite among her American courses is no easy task.

“We can choose here, but in my country we can’t choose what we want to study,” she said. “So I like all of my subjects here because I picked them.”

Lee has been studying English since the second grade and her trip abroad to the states is viewed as strengthening those language skills.

“We have to learn English,” she said. “It’s very important now.”

For the full story, see the Thursday, Dec. 6 print edition of the Times.