Taiwanese exchange students visit Claymont Elementary

MMC Starlight

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It might seem scary to travel halfway across the world to spend a week with an unknown family at the age of nine. However, 29 Taiwanese students and 14 chaperones took up the challenge! Sponsored by the Encyclopedia Britannica Company, the MMC Starlight Exchange Program for Taiwanese elementary school students arrived in St. Louis on April 27 after a brief visit to Chicago.

The group came with the world’s largest pop-up book (as in the Guinness Book of World Records) are prepared to participate in UMSL’s International Storytelling Festival. Aaron Wills, principal of Claymont Elementary, was a chief organizer for the exchange.

“Sherry Norfolk is a storyteller who went to Taiwan to work with the Starlight Storytelling Club in Taichung, Taiwan. They told her that they would like to come to America, and Sherry had worked with Claymont before, so she asked us if we would be interested in hosting this group,” Wills said.

One of the biggest challenges was finding host families willing to take in a few Taiwanese students.

“We made a video telling [families] about the experience, and several families responded that they would like to host and were very excited about it,” Wills said. “In the end, we had one slot left, so we called a few families and we found one more host family to make 14.”

The Taiwanese students, on the other hand, prepared for the trip by practicing their storytelling and learning about American culture.

“We practiced [our stories] a lot and we learned what we needed to know overseas, like responsibility and being respectful,” Tim, one of the younger exchange students, said.

There were lots of preparations that had to be made by the host families.

“I was nervous, but we bought gifts for them,” Suzanne Mercer, a host parent, said. “I was mostly worried about making food that they would like. I didn’t want to make something that they wouldn’t eat because then they’d be starving.”

However, the Claymont and Starlight students got along very well upon their meeting.

“My host family is really good to me,” Joanne said, a Taiwanese student. “I’ve met many friends at Claymont.”

The host families reported positive things about their visitors as well.

“They’re great kids,” Mercer said. “They’ve enjoyed things that I’ve just never thought of. They live in the city so they don’t see stars, so one night they went out on the trampoline with my girls and they laid and looked at the stars, and that was really cool for them. We’ve learned a lot from them, they’re very sweet girls – very kind – and it’s been a really nice experience.”

The exchange students learned to adjust both mentally and physically.

“You don’t have many tall buildings here. In Taiwan, everyone lives in apartments, not houses, and the weather in Chicago was really cold,” Maggie Lin, a Taiwanese chaperone, said. “Some kids have homesickness, and they have to cope with it.”

The exchange families had a packed agenda that led them around the city, to places like the Magic House, a Cardinals baseball game and the storytelling festival.

“The Claymont kids have been very excited; they have stayed up late every night playing with their new friends and learning all about the Taiwanese culture, especially, receiving gifts,” Wills said. “They also learned a little bit about the language and about their schools, how they’re the same and how they’re different.”

For some host families, the exchange program brought them closer.

“It has forced us to spend more time together this week as we are forced to put our other obligations aside, so that’s nice. I think it was just good for all of us to realize that we have to put those other things that we would usually want to do aside to meet new people and have people in our home and make them feel welcome and learn about their culture. We’ve definitely learned a lot about their culture,” Mercer said.

The Taiwanese students gleaned similar cultural experiences from their hosts.

“They have improved a lot in their English speaking and their performing techniques,” Lin said.

Looking ahead, the relations between Claymont and Starlight are far from over.

“They very much want us to come visit them in Taichung, and they also want to come back every year,” Wills said.

For now, the students are left with a unique cultural experience.

“I love it here! I love the food here, like hamburgers or pizza,” Tim said. “And hot dogs. In Taiwan the hotdogs are blech.”