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November 30, 2011

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Shanghai - a melting pot

LIFE is different for young international students who step onto a foreign land. But finally, the strange land will become familiar.

Eleven-year-old Iruoma Ekpunobi is a 7th grader studying at Concordia International School Shanghai. Like many international students, her parents' jobs brought Ekpunobi to Shanghai.

"When my parents first brought the news to me, I was hysterical. But when I came here, it turned out to be exciting," Ekpunobi says.

"I grew up in a place that didn't even qualify as a town. So experiencing this city that was even larger than New York was eye opening to me. It is an adventure."

Truly, moving abroad is an adventure for almost every international student. From culture to history, from food to living habits - everything in Shanghai is new to them.

German student Natalie, in Year 10, has been studying at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai for the past 10 years. She could be one of the most "experienced" foreign students to share her studying life here.

"There is always something going on in Shanghai. You can never get bored. It is very international, offering food from everywhere and is purely amazing," Natalie says.

"What I love most about Shanghai is the fact that you have the opportunity to meet so many different people from different cultures. It just opens my eyes to the world much more."

She has friends who speak Chinese, most of whom she has met in school, where they communicate in both English and Chinese with each other. Nowadays, she can speak fluent Chinese.

Language is a barrier to most foreign students. But if managed carefully, it can be turned into the source of fun.

At YCIS Shanghai, students have one Chinese class per day to enable them to speak the language of the place where they live. Besides, the school hosts an annual Chinese Week when students read books and participate in Chinese competitions.

To understand China better, primary year students have Chinese culture classes once a week to learn the history, geography and traditions of China. These lessons are part of the school's efforts to make the students feel more comfortable in this foreign land.

After being in Shanghai for such a long time, Natalie wants to go back to Germany for holidays.

"I miss the mountains and nature there. In Shanghai I do not have the opportunity to go outside and take a walk or hike," she says. "I think that is what I miss most. Of course, I miss my friends in Germany. It is hard to stay in touch because of the huge time difference."

To Melina Soledad Toscani from Shanghai Community International School, China was just a magical, faraway land where people wore funny clothes, when she was five years old.

"When my dad told me he had been promoted and we were going to move to China, I was 17," Toscani says. "But my knowledge of China didn't really extend much further from my five-year-old fantasies."

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she has already lived in the USA, Uruguay, Guatemala, Peru and Brazil by the age of 17.

She has always described herself as an "American girl," given that she left Argentina at the age of six and has never lived in the same place for more than a couple of years, and yet surprisingly had never left the American continent before coming to China.

It's hard to explain her first impressions of China because she thinks that deep down she still expected to see people in funny costumes and dragons flying around.

"I guess that will never change. No matter how many times I move, nor how old I am to know that Peruvians don't ride llamas to work and Brazilians don't live in trees, a small part of me, the childish imaginative one, still expects to see it," she says.

"So when I saw highways and skyscrapers, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed and pathetically surprised. China is just as similar as it is different from any of the places I have ever lived in."

In fact, since the age of eight, she has always attended international schools. She is used to being surrounded by people from different corners of the world.

But there is also a slight difference. In previous schools, most of the student population consisted of people from different Latin countries. She has always been part of this "regional culture" and never felt like an outsider to the community she was introduced to.

Here however, in a school which consists of much larger European and Asian communities, she feels like an outsider not only because she is not from those parts of the world, but also because she is quite ignorant to the nuances of these cultures.

"I had never been to Asia, and I have still never been to Europe. I have met Asians and Europeans before, but it's not the same to meet someone outside of the region they are from and within it," she says.

"So here in my school I am an outsider. It just means that I still have a lot to learn. And this learning process is going to take time," she says. "Until then, I will just have to try my best with what I have. And if that means bonding with my father's driver over Shakira songs, then so be it."

The same is true for Canadian Susan Liu, a Year 12 student at Dulwich College Shanghai. To her, China has always been an enigmatic place throughout her life.

Liu, whose parents are Chinese, has been taught to treat China as her motherland, but the values, the traditions, the literature and language - have been a slippery, evasive blur throughout her childhood.

"I never delved deep into the culture of my parents, their parents, and so on. I was content to just barely skim the surface of it all. China, and what it entailed, was always an intrinsic part of me, but it was a part that I never understood, or cared to understand," Liu says.

"But eventually, I felt lost like I needed to reconnect with the half of me I had never met. So when the prospect of moving back to a 'home' I never knew came up, I immediately agreed. It was as if I had been written out of my own story and then given a chance to re-enter it."

'Live with it'

Liu faced initial language barriers when she went to school in Canada, but attending an international school in Shanghai automatically removed the communication problems.

However, switching to various education systems inside international schools can be rather confusing.

"Being in an international school means that we must embrace all the cultures, all the histories. There are times when global study has made me feel like a 'half-cast,' a strange mix of two cultures - not outcast or ostracized from either, but not wholly a part of them," Liu says.

"It's a conflict between identities, but in the end you have to accept and 'live with it,' because it's one of those things that makes you stronger."

Studying in Shanghai, Liu has an elaborate description on the city.

In her eyes, Shanghai is a place of discovery and self-actualization. Shanghai never looks the same, never feels the same. It's delicate, beautiful, suffocating, refreshing, coarse, unruly - all at the same time.

"It's a myriad of chances all crammed into one small package, like a present waiting for you to open and set off the firework of opportunity; it's a translucent mirror that subtly reflects your ideals into your own eyes."

When she finds the true image of Shanghai, Liu feels she finds herself.

"I love that Shanghai will be angry with me, cry with me, but also be happy with me for no reason."

"If an Asian student goes to study in a Western country there can be issues with food, manners and physical space. Westerners usually are more direct than Asians and often make eye contact more often as well. Students may be shy to talk to their professor where it is expected in a Western country," says Douglas Willard, head of University Guide Counsellor of Shanghai Singapore International School.

"We believe that by exposing our students to an extensive amount of Chinese culture while learning the Chinese language, they will be able to benefit from comprehending the connotation of Chinese language and in promoting their overall literacy in the language. The introduction of the Chinese Culture Class is also a door to explore China," says Willard.

In Chinese Culture Class at SSIS, various components are introduced and these include getting the students from various nationalities to: understand the origins of the traditional Chinese holidays; learn to perform the art of Peking Opera; understand the lives of ancient poets, master the "Three Character Primer," comprehend the "Disciplines of Children;" appreciate the beautiful craft of Chinese Knots; learn calligraphy and conduct the tea ceremony, etc. The fun and interesting experiential activities not only arouse students' interests in Chinese, but also enrich their learning experience greatly.


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