BY CAROL ROEHM
Ten Danville High School students embarked on a trip of a lifetime this past summer. The two-week trip to Taiwan immersed the eight girls and two boys in a different culture and way of life. Many of the students say the trip changed their way of thinking and taught them valuable life lessons about respect for others, open mindedness and global awareness.
The June trip was the idea of DHS Chinese teacher Hsiao-Jung “Sophia” Shu, who is from Taiwan and has long wanted to share her native culture and country with DHS students.
Shu, who has taught Chinese at DHS for the last four years, planned the majority of the trip.
“Without her familiarity with the language, culture and destinations, the trip would have been far less culturally immersive and fun,” said Jeremie Smith, a GLOBAL House social studies teacher who previously lived in Japan for two years where he taught English.
Months of preparation
Shu, Smith and Dwayne Lucas, a Freshman House social studies teacher, recruited the 10 students for the Taiwan trip, which was open to the entire student body but students had to be recommended by a teacher.
Those 10 students were: Sarabian Reid, Alanna Cross, Cash Kiser, Dylan Pichon, Jessica Powell, McKenna Techtow, Teresa “Tess” Shore, Carly Kirk, Patricia Baker and Courtney Crisp.
Smith said they realized early on that the trip would be cost prohibitive for many students.
In the six months leading up to the trip, students raised funds by selling candy, soliciting businesses for help and receiving several small scholarships from the DHS student council.
“At one point, we were even taking turns wearing a pizza suit in front of Papa Murphy’s in an attempt to drum up business on the evening that the business granted us the opportunity to earn 10 percent of sales to use for our trip,” Smith said.
The students’ hard work paid off, reducing the average cost for the two-week trip to around $2,000. Smith said he thought that was impressive considering the 15-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean was $1,400.
The students left for their Taiwanese adventure June 1, a few days after the school year ended. After a three-hour drive to Chicago, a 15-hour flight to Hong Kong and a two-hour flight to Taipei, the students finally arrived at their destination.
The students spent a few days of sightseeing in Taipei, Taiwan’s largest city, and then boarded a bus to travel two hours south to Taichung, Shu’s hometown and the location of DHS’ sister school, Taichung Girls High School.
Two years ago, DHS hosted several teachers and students from Taichung Girls High School as the first step in building a sister school relationship. The school of 4,000 students is the No. 1 girls’ school in Taichung, a city of nearly 3 million people.
The school system in Taiwan is very different than in the U.S., Smith said. Most Taiwanese students go to private school, however, each major city has a handful of public schools that are not co-ed, have very high standards and require the students to test before they can enter.
“The pressure to succeed academically is great there,” Smith said. “It’s significantly higher than here.
“There’s a real motivation to become educated and independent. There’s pressure to be successful,” he said.
The sister school found the host families who were competent English speakers and had homes with enough space to accommodate a two-week stay for each DHS student.
Having the students stay with host families greatly reduced the cost of the trip while it greatly enhanced the cultural experience for the teens, Smith said.
“From what we heard, this was considered a great honor and the competition for the privilege to host our students was intense,” Smith said.
The host families were not typical Taiwanese families but rather were largely affluent, cultured, English speakers who placed a very high value on education.
Each of the 10 DHS students was paired with a “school buddy” who was his or her host during the visit.
Tess Shore, a DHS junior, said she had an idea ahead of time that Taiwan would be similar to the United States in some aspects, but the sheer number of people in the country — 35 million — surprised her.
“From what Ms. Shu told us, we expected it to be a lot like American culture, but the cities are huge and modern — more modern than Chicago,” Shore said. “The rural areas were densely populated, too.
“It was very, very different to be surrounded by so many people all the time,” she said.
Smith said riding the crowded subway cars was a unique experience, causing him to implement a numbering system among the students so he didn’t lose anyone.
Shore pointed out that many times all 10 DHS students had to huddle tightly while clinging to one pole in a packed subway car.
“They’re very quiet on the subway so as not to disturb others,” Smith said, adding that instead of stretching out a newspaper to read it, riders would fold up their newspapers into small sections.
“Being so densely populated, they’re more aware of each others’ space,” he said.
Shore said that reserved behavior was evident in the experience she had with her host family.
“Their home culture is very different than ours,” she said. “Families in Taiwan are more reserved. They were quiet — shy, sort of — and they didn’t outwardly show affection.”
Seniors Jessica Powell and Courtney Crisp agreed.
“They had fun, but they also had a seriousness about them,” Powell said.
About her host family, Crisp said, “They were very serious about their studies and their work.”
Although it is commonplace for good friends to hug each other in the hallways at DHS, Shore said she got the impression that the Taiwanese students thought, “What are these crazy Americans doing hugging each other?” when the DHS students would hug when they saw one another.
Senior Alanna Cross said her host family was similar to her real family.
“We would do our homework, eat dinner, watch TV and play Wii games,” she said.
Crisp said she enjoyed the food in Taiwan.
“They eat a lot of fish, rice and grains. It was flavorful. Even though it was healthy food, they made it taste good,” she said.
Shore said she asked her school buddy why Taiwanese don’t eat red meat. “They don’t eat red meat because cows are considered working animals and not for food,” she said.
While at the sister school, the DHS students found themselves being treated as celebrities and fielded many requests to have their photos taken.
“They were shocked by how different we looked,” Crisp said. “One girl told me I was beautiful.”
“Girls wanted to take their pictures with us,” Shore added.
“I think some of that was that we were honored guests,” Smith explained.
The students agreed that one of their favorite activities was visiting the night markets, sprawling open-air markets of food and street vendors that come alive after dark.
“It’s a consumer culture there like in the U.S.,” Smith said. “That was where most people did their shopping and socializing.”
The students bought many of their souvenirs at the night markets, but their host families also gave them special gifts to take home.
“I have a China doll that my school buddy gave me,” Shore said. “It’s a beautiful doll.”
Crisp’s host dad made her a keychain in the shape of Taiwan with the family’s name carved in the middle.
“He told me he will always consider me one of his daughters,” she said.
Cross’ host mom compiled a keepsake scrapbook of her visit.
Other activities the DHS students participated in included:
The students said what impressed them the most about Taiwan was the respect people showed to one another and the pride they had for their surroundings.
“The people were really nice and they always greeted each other,” Crisp said. “They were respectful. People here are more into themselves.”
Smith noted that the students at the sister school took so much pride and ownership in their school that it had no janitors. The students clean their own school.
“They make it their responsibility because they want their education more (than American students),” Shore said.
Cross agreed. “School ends at 2:40 here, but it doesn’t end until 5 there. Here, some are just waiting for school to be over and it’s disruptive to others.”
Crisp observed of the Taiwanese students, “They wore their school uniforms with pride. They didn’t want to do anything that would disrespect their school or the student body.
“I wish we could show that kind of pride in our country,” she added.
Shore said, “The whole experience has opened my mind to different cultures and so many things.
“The want to learn and to prosper, it’s made me want to work harder.”
At the end of the trip, Smith collected the memory cards from the students’ cameras and downloaded all the photos they took — 4,900 of them — onto 10 flash drives that he presented to each student as a gift from him.
Smith said his favorite part of the trip was watching the students experience bridging cultural divides, and he hopes the students will share their experiences with their peers.
“I remember the first time I forcefully realized that other cultures had an immense amount to teach me about humanity. It was, and continues to be, among the most treasured lessons of my life,” he said.
“Watching our students have this realization and grow as global citizens was incredible,” he added. “I suspect that the focus and direction of several lives were substantially changed because of the experience.”
Smith currently is planning a more traditional 10-day trip to Italy and Greece for DHS students in the spring.