Twenty-five Chinese students between the ages of 12 and 17 arrived in Newtown, Friday, July 25, for a three-week stay with host families in the area. The students are with Educational Homestay Programs, a division of Education First (EF).
The organization, according to its website, www.ef.edu/ehp/our-locations/new-york/newtown, is “dedicated to encouraging global awareness through cultural exchange and language learning.” Weekday language classes, field trips, and immersion in day-to-day family life provide these students visiting Newtown with a great range of opportunities to improve their English and better understand the culture of this part of the United States.
Henry Kesner, operations manager for the North American office of EF headquartered in Boston, said that the program was first launched in Newtown in 2012.
“Newtown is a safe and lovely community, and close to major cities,” said Mr Kesner, as to why this town has been selected to take part in the EF programs. “It is very people centered, and a launch is based on the kind of community, and with some local connection,” he said.
Newtown families have opened their homes to French and Italian students the past two years, and this year, nine families are hosting 16 of the students from China.
Lynn and Richard Hungaski, and their two daughters Abby and Emma, are repeat host families, having entertained girls from France and Italy in 2012 and 2013. This year, Chen Yu “Robert” and Jia Ju “Paolo,” both 14-year-old boys, are housed with the Hungaskis.
The two young men come from Guangzhou (known as Canton in English), a city of 10 million people, where they live in high-rise apartments. They have been thrilled by the beauty of Newtown, said Ms Hungaski, particularly the houses.
“They love the house and yard and our view of the whole valley. They love running around in the yard, and they love our dog,” she said.
It is the everyday activities that the boys enjoy, she said. The supermarkets, particularly Stew Leonard’s in Danbury, have delighted her visitors, Ms Hungaski said. “They take pictures of every meal I make,” and both love American foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, and spaghetti with meatballs. She cooks something new for the boys each day, but makes foods that her family would normally be eating, she said.
Watching television and “campy but funny” shows together has been fun, and Chen Yu and Jia Ju enjoyed seeing Twilight, with Chinese subtitles. She plans to take them to the beach before their visit is over, as well, Ms Hungaski said.
What makes this host family a little different from other situations is that Ms Hungaski is not only the boys’ American “mom,” but their teacher, too. Ms Hungaski teaches the Chinese students English each morning, in classes that run from 8 am to noon at Edmond Town Hall.
“It’s not a problem, at all. It’s not as formal as the regular school year,” Ms Hungaski said, with the point of the learning experience being to “break down any barriers we might have.”
There is homework for the students, most of it focused on conversations with host families that build on experiences the students may be having, or learning about different lifestyles and the culture. Each student has set three goals to accomplish by the end of the visit, as well, said Ms Hungaski. For instance, it may be to watch a movie without subtitles and understand it, or to cook an American meal.
In The Kitchen
Two young men, Jing Lin and Wei Xiang, both age 16, are staying with Dale Mello and her 19-year-old son Daniel, and have surprised her with their cooking abilities.
“They made Daniel and me a delicious Chinese meal of chicken wings, fried rice, green beans, and broccoli,” said Ms Mello. “The presentation on the plates was amazing,” she said. In turn, she said, the boys are enjoying the different foods that they are trying in America, “Especially some homemade meat sauce and Italian pasta.” That dish was popular enough that Jing Lin and Wei Xiang have asked Ms Mello to teach them how to make it.
The Mellos have discovered that the young men love to fly — on a trampoline that is. “We went to Sky Zone [the indoor trampoline park in Bethel] with the Newtown Congregational Church Youth Group on Sunday night. They had so much fun, they wanted to go back with more of their friends, so I took five of them Thursday night,” she said. Later, they joined others for a barbeque at the home of Linda and Larry Whippie, who along with son Karl, 17, are hosting a 15-year-old student, Yang Zhi Fu, “David.”
His first weekend in Newtown was an away visit to a Whippie family event in New Hampshire. Coupled with exhaustion from just arriving in the States and the new cultural experience, Ms Whippie laughed that she was not sure what David thought of his host family at first. He may not have been as impressed with the collection of 19 John Deere tractors and garden as her landscape company owner husband and son were, she said, nor did he quite understand the quaint appeal of a three-seater outhouse.
Because all of them are so physically active each day, the evenings at home are quiet, Ms Whippie said. “They usually play a little basketball or we play some croquet, and then we tend to go to our own corners. Everyone is tired,” she said.
Food is the challenge, Ms Whippie said. “When we drop the kids off or pick up, that’s what everyone is talking about: what are the kids eating?” She has found that David likes packaged foods, or a label he can look up on his phone to understand what the food is. “David is really open minded, though. He tries everything,” said Ms Whippie. Cooking hot dogs over an open fire was a new experience for David, who lives in a tall apartment building, she said, as was food cooking on the barbeque.
Overcoming The Language Barrier
“It is difficult for adults to adjust to new places and cultures. Can you imagine being 14 years old and spending three weeks on the other side of the world? I commend their parents for being so brave in sending their children here,” commented another host, Marilyn Alexander. She is loving having her two guests, Yun Hao “Ben” and Wen Jie “John,” although she has found the language barrier to be challenging.
“They are very quiet. One has a better command of the language than the other,” she said, and will try to translate what she says for the less comfortable speaker. She was able to briefly circumvent that difficulty, though, by contacting her own son, Peter, who lives with his family in China. “I had Peter call here and I put him on speaker phone so he could tell them a little about our family,” Ms Alexander said.
She has also found that her guests are quite tired out by the day’s end, so she has kept evening activities low key. One is a very good swimmer, she said, and has made use of her pool.
“I hope by the time they are ready to leave that we will have some better type of communication. I find them very sweet young boys,” said Ms Alexander.
Mr Kesner hopes that previous years’ positive experiences will encourage more Newtown residents to consider “adopting” a student next summer. There is no one “cookie cutter” type of host family, he emphasized. Families with lots of children or empty nesters, or people with no children of their own make equally good hosts for students from abroad.
Hosts must provide a bed for each student, meals —including a bag lunch each day — and transportation Monday through Friday to the pickup point for the day’s activities, in the morning and again in the evening. EF plans the learning experiences that take place on weekday afternoons.
This year, the Chinese students will have toured Yale University, walked Newtown’s Main Street with Town Historian Dan Cruson, and visited Kent Falls before the visit is over. They will have toured the Pez factory in Orange, gone to Boston, Quassy Amusement Park, bowling, and shopping at outlets, as well.
Host families are encouraged to lead normal lives. “You don’t have to dazzle the students,” Mr Kesner said. “It’s the little things that we take for granted that blow them away,” he said.
Overall, the program hopes to create friendships that last a lifetime. “That’s the biggest thing: friendships and bonds created with the host families. That,” Mr Kesner said, “warms my heart the most.”
Dale Mello’s guests are going to help her download a new app on her iPhone, in order to stay in touch after Jing Lin and Wei Xiang return to China. It is “a great example of goodness with the new mobile world today,” she said. “We have new friends, for life.”
EHP provides international students ages 10 to 17 the opportunity to explore another language and culture during short-term summer homestay programs in the USA. Host families pick the student they will host and staff offers 24/7 support. EHP has organized group travel for more than 175,000 international students since 1979.