HANOVERTON - A cultural exchange program at United High School culminated in a life-changing experience for nine students during summer vacation.
The students- seniors Mariah Franks, Elaina Zehentbauer, Bridgette Kelly, Anthony Zarlinga and Cody Opsitnik, and juniors Maggie Briceland, Vincent Zehentbauer, Ben Sell and Andrew Martin- traveled to China in June, touring historical sites in addition to visiting sister school Huangshi No. 7 High School in Hubei Province. The trip capped a nearly three-year participation in the China Exchange Initiative, a program sponsored by the Ohio Department of Education in cooperation with the Beijing Ministry of Education, with funding from the Freeman Foundation, that partnered United Local with Huangshi No. 7 High School and included administrative and teacher exchange visits, to develop cultural awareness through a variety of technologies and correspondence.
On Thursday the students shared their experience at a community forum at the high school, telling of their visits to historical cities and sites including Shanghai, Beijing and Xian as well as the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, plus their time at their sister school and how they handled Chinese culture.
The nine United Local students who traveled to China during summer vacation as part of a cultural exchange program spoke about their trip at a community forum Thursday night at the high school. Front, from left, Mariah Franks, Elaina Zehentbauer, Bridgette Kelly, Maggie Briceland; back, Anthony Zarlinga, Vincent Zehentbauer, Ben Sell, Cody Opsitnik and Andrew Martin. (Salem News photo by Kevin Howell)
"It's such a different lifestyle (in China)," said Sell. "It makes you grateful for the society you live in."
"It puts everything in perspective," added Elaina Zehentbauer.
Besides the typical sightseeing that tourists always conduct, the students received a first-hand view of the social differences between the two countries, notably in education.
According to Elaina Zehentbauer, Chinese students attend classes from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., with 50 to 60 students in one classroom, which the teachers visit instead of the students moving. She said during the visit the she and her fellow exchange students sat in on classes in English, math and music, participating in the lessons and discussing their lifestyles.
In a display of dictatorial censorship not experienced in the U.S., the students said they were prohibited from discussing capitalism and democracy with the Chinese students, despite the fact that the topics were the most questioned. They said not only were they told not to talk about, but cameras are posted in classrooms, public places and even sidewalks to monitor public discussion of the topics. The Internet is also censored, with access granted only to government sanctioned websites, and the only English language television channel-the news-subject to blackouts whenever prohibited topics arose, they said.
"Socially they are so far behind at the same time that technology is moving at such a great speed," noted Young, highlighting the contrast in discrimination toward women and prevalence of smoking tobacco use with that of each child being issued a cell phone.
Much like the censorship, the sexism displayed by the Chinese males shocked the visiting students. Several noted during the forum that the female United students were often excluded from conversations, and attempts to include them were futile. They also said that people would carry the male students' luggage but not the female students'.
Each of the students was assigned pen pals prior to their visit, and was able to trade gifts with them during their time in China. Although there are currently no plans for the pen pals to visit United, many of the students have stayed in contact and at least one hopes the opportunity arises.
"They were so proud of their school, and we're definitely proud of United," Opsitnik said.
Young said that due to the exchange rate, the Chinese students are not likely to be able to afford to visit the U.S., but that the sister schools are working toward a teacher exchange for English and Chinese language courses.
Overall the exchange initiative has opened doors for those who participated, Young said.
"It's been an amazing experience for everyone involved," he said. "When you're able to go visit the other side of the world, it gives you perspective.
"The hope is for the kids to take away if they can go to China for two weeks, without knowing the language or the people, then they can go anywhere and succeed."