They like Maroon 5. Taylor Swift. Beyonce. And shoe shopping.
But the Chinese teens who recently completed a visit to Tacoma came here to sample more than just American pop culture and fashion.
For three weeks, they were listening and learning in classes at a high school, Foss IB World School, and at Gray and Truman middle schools.
About 60 students — many from Beijing, others from Wuhan, in central China — arrived in late January and left Tacoma last week.
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Their impression of American classrooms?
“In America, the classes are very open, and every person has a different idea,” noted 15-year-old Liu Hui Yu, who adopted an American name, Jennifer, for her visit. “It’s free. I like it.”
“I think the greatest thing I learned in America is their way of studying,” added her friend Jiao Xiao Yuan, also known as Caroline.
“They are not studying for a test, all the way around. They really read books, and they write what they feel about the book.”
They are not studying for a test. ... They really read books, and they write what they feel about the book.
Jiao Xiao Yuan, visiting Chinese student, on Americans
Those are the very sorts of ideas that motivated their parents to send them here, according to officials with Tower Bridge International Education, a private Chinese company parents pay to arrange U.S. study opportunities for their children.
While many Americans admire the high test scores produced by students in China on international tests, Chinese parents are interested in having their children learn the independence and creativity they see in American students, Tower Bridge officials say.
“Leadership, diversity, critical thinking,” says David Chen of Tower Bridge. “Coming here, they can learn more.”
In addition, it’s a chance for Chinese students to practice their English language skills.
Many schoolchildren in China study English. One of the students who came to Tacoma this year was the winner of an English-speaking contest in Beijing.
“We are looking to give students the chance to increase their communication skills,” said Rebecca Field of Tower Bridge. “Many have studied English for years. This is an opportunity for them to practice their spoken language.”
A year ago, Tacoma Public Schools and Tower Bridge signed an agreement to set up educational and cultural exchanges between Chinese and Tacoma youths. This year’s visit was a sort of trial run for next year, when some of the Chinese students could return for an entire school year.
Under the agreement, the company will pay the school district $10,000 in tuition for a full year’s study, along with a $500 per-student fee that will support future international study tours for Tacoma students and staff members.
Foss Spanish teacher Katie Havens was one of three Foss staff members invited to China last summer by Tower Bridge. She worked with the visiting Chinese students at Foss, both in her class and after school. Visitors teamed up with Tacoma students and “shadowed” them in classes.
Her observation: Teens in Tacoma and teens from China share a lot in common.
“They have an enormous amount of fun together,” she said. “I think a few will end up as lifelong friends. They’re bonded.”
Many have studied English for years. This is an opportunity for them to practice their spoken language.
Rebecca Field of Tower Bridge
Chinese students stayed with local host families during their visit.
The Tieman family of Gig Harbor hosted two of the visitors, Xin Yuan Tang, 16, who goes by the American name Tina, and Tuya Wulan, 15, who is also called Kelly. Tina is from Beijing, while Kelly is from Inner Mongolia but attends a Beijing boarding school.
“At first I thought I would be very nervous,” Tina said. “But I realized everyone was very welcoming and accommodating.”
They have learned to love both Mexican and Italian food, and were looking forward to a visit to an outlet mall toward the end of their stay.
The girls speak English, Chinese and a mix of the two languages, Louise Tieman said.
“Their English has been very good. It’s been very easy to communicate,” Tieman said.
Before they left Tacoma to return home, the visiting students took part in a Chinese New Year celebration at the Asia Pacific Cultural Center on South Tacoma Way.
The evening included a Chinese food buffet, a fashion show featuring traditional and modern Chinese clothing, and performances of both traditional Chinese songs and dances and American tunes. One group presented a song known on the Internet as “the cup song” (real title: “When I’m Gone”) from the 2012 movie “Pitch Perfect.” It featured students singing and providing percussion with cups, hand claps and sticks.
Students gave a nod to American New Year’s traditions, singing “Auld Lang Syne” in English, then descending from the stage to distribute the red scarves they wore to their new American friends.
Students explained that wearing a red scarf for the New Year is a tradition in China, where red is a color that signifies good luck.
Chen, from Tower Bridge, said celebrating the new year with family is important in China. With students away from home for the holiday, they chose to celebrate with their host families and students from the schools they had been visiting.
“It’s really giving them an opportunity to celebrate, to interact with each other and learn from each other,” Chen said.