DALLAS -- After being in the United States for two days, 22 Chinese students had no trouble communicating. At least not while they were in Nan Yang restaurant in Dallas.
Apart from their Chinese meal, the students are finding they often come up against the language and cultural barrier while with their Polk County host families. And quite often, food is the catalyst.
The students, ages 11 to 13, are in Polk County for a three-week visit as part of the Northwest International Study Exchange program, or NISE. The program goal is to help people from various cultures bond through discovering their similarities and celebrating their differences. Two Chinese escorts, Fu Peng and Li Bai Ling, accompany the children.
Fu Peng teaches English in the Szechwan province, where all the students live. Some of the students are from rural areas while others are from urban communities. Coming to an English-speaking country and staying with families immerses students in the language, he said. "The purpose is to learn English, and every day they must speak English," he said.
"Most students have taken English for only one year and know very little," Fu said. "By using gestures and body language, they can express their meaning."
While in the United States, the Chinese students have adopted American names. Among the 22, two call themselves Tom and three Mike.
"Emily" stays with host sister Mandy Nettleton, 17. She gets her message across mostly by drawing. "It takes a lot of time, explaining and understanding," Nettleton said.
"It helps if you're a good drawer."
Nettleton noticed a striking cultural gap in a place some regard as quintessentially American: McDonald's. "Emily started singing in Chinese," Nettleton said. "She sang us a song right in the middle of McDonald's."
She hopes to try Kentucky Fried Chicken next.
Some of the visiting students put together meals even stranger than American fast food. "Emily thought yogurt was butter," Nettleton said. "Ten girls all had yogurt.
"One girl made a sandwich with bread and butter, fruit, chicken and she put mustard on it."
But Fu Peng takes his new cuisine in stride. "I can get used to American food," he said. "I can bear it."
The three weeks the Chinese students spend in the United States will teem with all-American activities, including bowling, drive-in movies, bluegrass music and shopping. "They shop a long time," said Nettleton after a trip to outlet malls. "When someone bought something, they all had to buy something," she said. "It was really cute."
Tammy Wolfe is hosting "Michael II." She wonders how Americans and Chinese will relate to each other years after exchange programs like NISE.
"He's so interested in English. It will be interesting to see what will happens 20 years down the road," Wolfe said.
Michael II and Wolfe's son play together in what she calls the "international language of boys. Everyone knows the gesture for Nintendo."
Sheryl DeKruyf got a crash course in the language, buying Game Boys and games for her son and host son "Edison."
"It's fun to see how they can communicate without even talking," she said. They do get out, playing soccer and basketball and skateboarding, DeKruyf's son Cory said.
DeKruyf feels hosting a Chinese student can bring new perspectives. "In America, we have so many freedoms we take for granted," she said. "In China, they don't have a lot of the choices we have, things like choosing a church or watching anything on TV."
In Dallas, a ride on a real fire truck and the chance to sit in a police car were big hits of a tour featuring the police station, fire department and ambulance service. They also got to visit a courtroom and see a firefighter in full gear. And a visit from the fire department's rather skittish dalmation drew excited reactions from the kids.
Fu Peng reflected the differences between his adopted home in Monmouth and his home in China. "The traffic is different," he said.
"Here there are cars and big trucks, but no people. In China, there are so many people and bicycles." He looks forward to strolling around Oregon towns. "The Chinese like walking," he said, smiling.
And after the three weeks of cultural education has ended, Fu plans on becoming a tourist with the students as they all head to Disneyland.