When Joyce Fuica joined a group of high school students bound for China, the idea was to learn about the country’s culture and language in ways they couldn’t in a classroom.
Fuica found a new way to introduce herself, ate healthier than ever before, lived with host Chinese students and even learned to haggle.
"It was really an eye-opening experience," said Fuica. "It’s like, very hands on when you go. I studied Chinese in Linden High School, but I didn’t learn as much as I did in China."
The recent Linden graduate and her classmates picked up their on-site knowledge because of the school’s Chinese exchange program.
For two years, Linden has sent students to China for a week at the Xiamen Foreign Language School in southeast Fujian province and then another week traveling to several major cities in China. Now the school district hopes to expand the program to another school, Fuzhou High School No. 3, which is also in Fujian province.
Linden administrators hosted a delegation from School No. 3 last week to discuss the future exchange program, which would be similar to the existing one.
"Today in our global society, we must give the students the ability to speak and live the language," said Alphonsina Paternostro, Linden’s foreign language department supervisor. "And we find that this is one way to open the window of the world to our students."
While Linden also has exchange programs to Germany, Italy, Spain and France, the Chinese one comes in a time when the U.S. government has placed an emphasis on learning Chinese, as well Arabic and Russian, Linden Superintendent Rocco Tomazic said.
Tomazic led the first China trip back in spring 2009. The students stayed at the Xiamen School. Dressed in the school’s white jackets and blue pants, the Linden kids were partnered with a Chinese student and attended classes like Chinese grammar, calligraphy and tai chi. Classes went from early morning to late night.
When school ended, the Linden group stayed in the dorm. Taking up five or six floors, the building had separate quarters for boys and girls. Each room slept at least six students. Lights went out at 10. Some Xiamen students stayed up afterward though, using a flashlight to keep studying. This dedication to school surprised Jace Guerrero, now a Linden junior, who stayed with a student named Edgar Tang.
"He was the busiest kid I’ve ever met," Guerrero said. "They’re really diligent in their studies."
On the weekend, the Linden students accompanied the Xiamen kids home. The parents cooked meals of vegetables and fish. Since Fujian doesn’t see a lot of Americans, their presence caused a stir.
"I felt like a star, everyone wanted to take a picture with me," said Natalia Motto, who just graduated. "We learned a lot of stuff that we couldn’t have here. Now I want to be fluent; in three years I want to be fluent."
The state’s budget crunch led to questions about whether the exchange programs should continue. Tomazic says he will do his best to keep Linden’s program because the lessons and connections the students make are too worthwhile to cut.
"They come back, having made their connections with their Chinese counterparts. They’re texting, e-mailing," Tomazic said, then he rolled his eyes slightly. "And they’re Facebooking."