Chinese exchange students Xiang Yu, left, Peng Bo and Geng Chao visited University of Hawaii's Center for Hawaiian Studies yesterday and got the opportunity to look at breadfruit and watch the construction of a traditional hale pili, a home constructed by hand out of pili grass.

Chinese students get
taste of isle culture

A Punahou exchange program
helps three teens from a poor
village visit the isles

Xiang Yu dreamed of traveling from her small Chinese village to Hawaii after she saw a television show featuring the islands' beaches two years ago.

The 17-year-old's dream has come true thanks to a cultural program at Punahou School, and she hopes to learn surfing soon.

"Hawaii people are very kind to me," said Yu, who arrived in Hawaii on Tuesday with two other students in Baojing Middle School.

All three will join other international students to participate in a four-week summer program at Punahou School that helps them develop their English language skills and learn about native Hawaiian and American cultures. For 35 years the Pan Pacific Program has been assisting students from Japan, Europe, France, South Korea and India to help strengthen their language skills.

Expenses for the three students from China were paid by organizations, private donors and a grant by the Freeman Foundation that provided $3,000 toward their housing and tuition expenses. The grant now enables students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds to participate in the program whereas in previous years, only students from well-to-do families took part in the program.

For the first time, Yu, Peng Bo and Geng Chao left their close-knit community to broaden themselves academically and culturally.

"Hawaii is so big and beautiful. ... The air is very fresh," said Chao, 16. Each student studied English for about three to five years at the Baojing Middle School.

Hope Staab, director of Punahou's Wo International Center, was impressed by the students' loyalty to their families and their willingness to learn a different culture. There is freshness and innocence among the students from Baojing, said Staab.

"There are special qualities about them that our kids will never have. ... Our kids, there's so much emphasis on friends and peer pressure. From Baojing, they don't have that."

The students will stay with host families while they attend classes and go on excursions to places such as the Hawaii Nature Center, Hanauma Bay and the Big Island where they will take part in a rain forest restoration project. In turn, 20 students from Hawaii will travel to Baojing next year to learn about their culture.

Kate Zhou, political science professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, assisted the Wo International Center in creating a student exchange between Hawaii and Baojing.

In the past, Hawaii high school students in the Pan Pacific Program stayed in large cities and were not exposed to a more traditional China, Staab said.

"I thought the kids were getting a warped sense of what China is because they were staying in big cities," said Staab. "It's like the tourists who just stay in Waikiki. ... To be able to capture the culture as it was is a really rare experience."

Baojing has remained relatively untouched by the rapid development of China. The village is located in the western part of Hunan and is populated mostly with farmers who earn an annual income of $100. Most take a second job so they can afford to send their child to school, which costs $400 a year.

Staab said Baojing is a poor village but is rich in relationships between family members. "When we asked them who is their hero in their life, they said their parents. They see the sacrifices they make."


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