Participating in a foreign exchange program has always been a hope and dream of mine since I was a young boy. The idea of welcoming a student into my home, meeting my family and friends, and exchanging culture and language would expose me to new life experiences beyond my borders and help me grow into a more knowledgeable and worldly person.
This past week has been a treasured experience. The first part of my exchange journey unfolded on Monday January 30th, when Chinese II classes traveled to Flushing to a hotpot restaurant with Mrs. Song and Mrs. Wang to have an authentic Chinese New Year Experience. After my mouth-watering meal and celebration, I couldn’t wait to share my experience with my soon-to-arrive exchange student. After quite a few exams on Tuesday, and last minute preparations at home, we were ready to welcome our new friend the next day. That night, I had a chat with my mom about my nervousness and she said one thing that I will never forget, “You are the first in our family to charter into this beautiful Chinese language and culture, you have taught our family so much, have so much to share and I am very proud of you.” I felt much better and fell asleep shortly thereafter.
Finally the day arrived! On Wednesday morning, I awoke with just a few butterflies in my stomach, but then I remembered what my mom said the previous night, and those butterflies slowly began to fly away. As the afternoon approached, I became more and more excited to meet my exchange student, Pang Haonian. As the bell rang at 3:31pm, I dashed to the Middle School Library to greet our exchange students over some pizza, pasta, chicken parmigiano and caesar salad. As we shook hands for the first time, he welcomed me to his table and graciously introduced me to his friends. We got to know each other, exchanging favorite classes, hobbies and interests. We quickly realized that had so much in common!
For the next six days, Pang Haonian and I became more comfortable with each other and quickly became good friends. We became more proficient each other’s language and were able to converse in each others’ native tongue with less nerves and more ease. The most special experience was sharing new places and things with Pang Haonian through his eyes, ears and unique pallette. I will never forget his expression when we visited the frigid, calm shores of Long Island’s Jones Beach. Pang Haonian was fascinated with each shell, grain of sand and piece of seaweed, while admiring the beautiful horizon. It was also amazing to see the look on his face when we strolled down Broadway, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of New York City traffic and Times Square. Finally, it was an emotional moment as Lady Liberty welcomed Pang Haonian into New York Harbor, as I shared the history of Ellis Island through the eyes of my great grandparents.
As Pang Haonian was packing his suitcase for his long flights to Xi’an, I heard him singing and listening to Lady Gaga songs on his phone, which gave me an idea for a final parting gift. I have always treasured my portable Bluetooth speaker and I thought that Pang Haonian, also as a lover of music, would love to take this back to China. After attempting to pair the two electronic devices in Chinese, we finally heard “Poker Face” echoing through the speaker. We all began to dance over the house, celebrating our connection. This music was a way for us to come together, bridge our cultures and celebrate our special relationship, despite living over 6,000 miles apart.
Pang Haonian is now home in Xi’an after two long flights. We keep in contact regularly on WeChat despite the challenging 13 hour time difference. This was a magical experience which I will never forget; forming a special bond not as students, but as friends and brothers. As I reflect on our exchange, a Chinese proverb comes to mind: “A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark” and Pang Haonian has certainly left a mark on my life and the lives of my friends and family…. I hope I left a mark on his life as well.