TRAVERSE CITY — Students from China's largest K-12 private education group are expected to travel nearly 6,500 miles to attend Traverse City Area Public Schools next year.
They'll be the first of many students who participate in an ambitious cultural exchange proposal between the Beijing-based Weiming Education Group and TCAPS that could bring up to 200 Chinese students to live and study in Traverse City for years to come.
TCAPS officials will help the Chinese students adjust to their new surroundings when they arrive, but some natives of China who already live in Traverse City said the students themselves need to play a large role in overcoming linguistic and cultural differences they're sure to encounter.
Xueyuan Zhao, who hails from northern China and owns the restaurant Panda North on South Airport Road, moved to Traverse City about 15 years ago and met her husband Jeffrey Liu. Language proved to be Zhao's biggest barrier to settling in when she arrived stateside; she could read and write well but often struggled with pronunciation. She gave prospective exchange students from Beijing a simple piece of advice.
“Don’t worry too much," Zhao said. "Everything will go well. The people are nice, but spend more time on the language.”
Zhao and Liu -- who is Taiwanese, not Chinese -- described Traverse City as a "quiet, nice, beautiful city." Liu said Traverse City's Asian population is small, but overall the community has treated him and his family well.
"Mostly, the people here are warm-hearted," he said. "Probably Traverse City is the best choice for us."
Yiling Liu, a Mandarin teacher at TCAPS' International School at Bertha Vos, agreed. She moved to Traverse City about a year and a half ago and said she's been welcomed.
Liu said Weiming students will have more free time than they're used to in China, and she encouraged them to get involved in extra curricular activities like sports or music programs.
"It's great to have so many choices here," she said.
Liu said Weiming students most of all need to come to Traverse City with an open mind.
"They will experience some new things," Liu said. "They need to be more independent. They need to be more open to other thoughts and ideas and a new culture."
Much of the same can be said of the host families with whom Weiming students will live, and TCAPS officials plan to work with both parties to make cultural differences as manageable as possible.
The Chinese students will start their stay in Traverse City with a two-week "boot camp" to learn about the area and American culture, TCAPS Associate Superintendent Jayne Mohr said. Each Chinese student will be paired with a TCAPS student -- in many cases from their own host family -- to help them navigate their new surroundings.
Host families will receive their own schooling in cultural differences before the students arrive, TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins said. For example, Chinese students don't tend to be as verbally or emotionally expressive as American students.
"It's very important not to mistake that for them being unhappy," Cousins said.
TCAPS is still looking for families to host Weiming students. Host families don't need to include TCAPS students, and Karyn Hertel, a district volunteer coordinator, said housing an exchange student is a rewarding experience. Her own family has hosted exchange students from Germany and China, and she said her children learned a lot from living alongside students from other cultures.
"I can't put a price on the experience my children are getting," she said.