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March 17, 2010

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Breaking out of expat bubble

MANY international students in Shanghai are surrounded by familiar family members, friends and their expat communities, so actually getting into Chinese culture, learning and making friends, takes some effort.

Opportunities for young foreigners to get involved with the local community are increasing, and they are venturing out of their comfort zone and the expat bubble.

"For me, it's interesting, as I am half-Chinese," says Alexandrea Lee, a 10th-grade American student at Concordia International School Shanghai.

"The most important part for me is that I get to learn about the half of me that I haven't really explored yet, through interactions with the local community," says the New Jersey native.

School activities promote the interaction, and Lee is involved in the service club.

Last year they reached out to migrant workers who were establishing their new school building - they provided some small gifts and dinner to show their appreciation.

Edward Park, a South Korean and Lee's schoolmate, used to be dissatisfied with his interactions with local Chinese.

"Every day they come and go and I see them around," he says, "but as an international student, true interaction is rare."

But he got involved with the school's Yunnan Province Education Project, which enabled him to go to Yunnan, helped local people and learned about Chinese culture.

"Through the project, I went to Yunnan to help supply a water-pumping system and to teach English," Park recalls. "Those experiences were very meaningful to me."

Michael Wong, a Hong Kong student at Dulwich College Shanghai, appreciates the city's fast-paced development.

"Progress is inevitable. In my time here I have seen the population grow increasingly international," Wong says. "With locals opening their eyes to the world and interacting more frequently with foreigners, cultural exchange is quite dynamic."

The international students are also ambassadors who advance the ideals of their schools.

"We mostly interact through charity, or some sort of school exchange," Wong says. His class traveled to Guizhou Province and to Yangshuo near Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

"We had opportunities to teach our peers there drama, sports and English and to learn more about their culture as they experienced ours," Wong says.

Mark Angus, principal of the British International School Shanghai (BISS) Nanxiang Campus, says it's important for students to remember that despite Shanghai's great cosmopolitan history and lifestyle, they are living in China and have a duty and responsibility to understand and participate in the wider culture as much as possible.

"This can take many forms, from shopping in local markets to eating in small local restaurants, to taking public transport, to going to watch sports or cultural events," says the principal. "There is so much for our students to learn beyond the confines of the classroom, and our aim should be to encourage and support them in these efforts."

Besides Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, BISS students at the Nanxiang Campus also enjoy Nanxiang's cultural heritage - Guyi Garden, Yunxiang Temple and the world-famous xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings).

"We are regular visitors to all of these sites and very much consider them ours - that is, we share in the local community's enormous pride in these icons of Shanghai life," Angus says.

As the World Expo 2010 draws near, students at the school will also be organized to visit the Expo site. They are encouraged to examine local dimensions and the enormous benefits that Expo has brought to Shanghai as a whole.

The school has on its doorstep the new Nanxiang Station on Metro Line 11 so students can easily go back and forth from the Expo site, he says.

"Green, cheap and quick - the Metro has improved the quality of life for everyone in the city, both now and in the future, and we are proud to share in this symbol of everything positive that Expo has brought and will continue to bring to Shanghai," Angus says.

Difficulties, however, still appear now and then for international students when they try to get involved in the local community.

Jasen Tjahjadi, a 12-grader from Concordia, says it's easy to get trapped in an expat community bubble. But after eight years he can speak, read and write Chinese, practice kung fu and play the erhu (two-string fiddle).

"I challenge everyone to get involved in this amazing city and to make their stay enriching and memorable," Tjahjadi says.


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