Abroad perspective: Chinese exchange students shares stories of disaster, culture

Nicole Stawiarski

Entertainment Editor

On May 12 of 2008, junior Xiao Cheng felt the effects of the Sichuan earthquake more than 100 miles away while at boarding school.

“The ground was shaking wildly and crazy, Cheng said.

It would be five hours before he would hear from his family.

Ultimately, the earthquake would claim nearly 70,000 lives and rendered five million homeless.

This experience and the work he did in the aftermath of the disaster are stories the Chinese exchange student is able to share about his home country.

“The area was on lockdown because there was disease,” Cheng said. “It was dangerous for us to go in there, so we loaded and unloaded materials and medical supplies.”

After such an experience, Cheng is no stranger to the unexpected.

After studying English formally for six years, he came to the U.S. to “broaden his sight” through Academic Year in America’s (AYA) student exchange program and is staying with a host family in Naperville.

“In my boarding school we don’t have rock climbing and bowling for gym,” Cheng said. “There are more restrictions. We have time schedules; when we eat, when we sleep. And there aren’t as many activities because we have to stay on campus most of the time.”

Cheng had class in the same room all day with one group of students, and different teachers would come and go for each subject.

“In China we get a deeper education because there are few subjects, but here it’s wider because there are so many choices,” Cheng said.

The stakes are higher in China than they are in the United States. College entrance exams are held once a year in China, and one test score is the sole pathway to receiving higher education. If someone does not pass the test, they cannot take it again until the following year.

Cheng plans on taking the exam and applying to American schools as well. Unsure of his career path, he is considering both architecture and economics.

Cheng has seen the effects of America’s economic crisis in his own country, which owns the highest percentage of foreign-owned U.S. bonds.

Despite his modesty regarding his grasp on the English language, he is able to explain the government’s efforts to “stimulate the domestic economy, which has many infrastructures” with an impressive vocabulary.

In light of the recent inauguration, Cheng has been able to appreciate and examine aspects of his own government.

“There’s no voting in China, and we don’t have an inauguration ceremony,” he said. “But we are able to do a lot of things that would not be possible without [communism].”

He uses for examples China’s Three Gorge Dam which is the world’s biggest water energy plant and the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, which were hosted by the People’s Republic of China.

Watching the opening ceremony was both a “proud” and “exciting” moment for Cheng.

He said that China is full of historical landmarks and natural attractions which most people are unaware of. One example is the naturally colorful pools of Jiu Zai Gou which are tinted by metal ions.

Cheng admits he had his own misconceptions about Americans as well.

“We think of America as fighting everywhere. We joke that they’re the ‘World Police,’” Cheng said, but he also was influenced by the friendly culture.

“When you walk down the street everyone says ‘Hello’ when you go by. I think in China we could improve our courtesy, although in China you walk past thousands of people every day,” Cheng said.