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Six Thousand Miles From Home

OAKHURST – More than thirty Chinese students traveled from China to San Francisco and then drove to Oakhurst on Sunday, July 20. They arrived late in the afternoon for a welcoming ice cream social at Sierra Vista Church, looking around for their host families with shy and anxious smiles.

They were being picked up by strangers who would become known as their “moms” and “dads” for the next 12 nights.

6,375 – that’s the mileage between Shanghai and Oakhurst, more or less. Picture yourself in their shoes. The kids range in age from 10 to 18.

This is how it works for the families who host them: the first week is a little bit difficult, and passes slowly. It’s confusing and sometimes awkward, and there’s a lot to do.

Queen and Polly look closely and photograph a praying mantis in Coarsegold - 2014 - photo by Kellie FlanaganThe second week is super fun and easy and speeds by in a flash. Then, it’s all over before you know it, and everybody cries as the bus heads south on Highway 41 out of Oakhurst. The students fly first to New York for a week of big-city living, then back home to China.

The students are here with Sierra Homestay, a cultural and educational program located in Oakhurst for overseas exchange students. For the past seven years, local foothill families have been hosting Chinese youth through the Academic Asia China educational exchange program and an east coast college touring program for students interested in American educational opportunities.

Sierra Homestay focuses on American culture and language skills, and the kids’ incoming language skills vary on arrival and improve dramatically over the course of their stay in the mountains.

Sierra Homestay student Queen examines a praying mantis she found on her chair in Coarsegold - 2014 - photo by Kellie FlanaganTwice, now, our family has hosted Chinese students through Sierra Homestay. We had two girls visit in 2011, and many of the students from that trip still keep in touch. This year, we have two girls again, both 15, who have chosen the English names “Polly” and “Queen” for the duration of the stay. On arrival in our home, the girls immediately presented gifts for us, as is the custom.

From Polly I received a truly lovely batik scarf, made in her home town, so gorgeous my sister might try to steal it. From Queen, we received three amazing needlepoint wall hangings, all hand-made by her mother, aunt and Queen herself. She also gave us traditional chopsticks made of rosewood. Turns out we’d need those chopsticks sooner than I realized.

Sierra Homestay students from China visit Bass Lake - boys under the tent - July 2014 - photo by Kellie FlanaganThey were relieved to find our home has wi-fi, and soon set about the house taking pictures of the rooms, walls, small treasures, and all the details of our modern American life, which they then sent home to their parents in order to reassure them they were in safe — if strange — quarters.

The first morning the students faced breakfast at our house. We’re told as hosts to treat the kids like our own and do what we normally do. Well, normally I start my day with a Diet Coke and a questionable attitude, but this week it’s different. We set out yogurt, berries, cereal, juice and the works.

Our particular visitors, Polly and Queen, are not picky eaters in the least, and are completely open to what we serve. They have enjoyed most everything, except for some frozen passion fruit juice from concentrate that Polly said tasted like Chinese medicine. I think she meant the sort of taste that cough syrup has, or Nyquil, so that went down the drain. As for lunches: Hello, peanut butter, meet our new girls!

Sierra Homestay students from China visit Bass Lake - girls come out of the water - July 2014 - photo by Kellie FlanaganOff to school they went for a morning of orientation which included local teacher Eric Hagen enacting the “chicken dance,” in order to loosen up the group. We think it worked.

Our daughter Clara, also a teenager just one year older than Polly and Queen, was along for part of the day at school, as the program encourages families to participate as much as possible. After lunch, the kids walked through Oakhurst, going to the Post Office and grocery stores for the first time here in town.

Our girls came home that night with bok choi and cucumber, asking if I had garlic and chili sauce, so I knew we were in for a good stay. Nothing like food to bridge a gap between cultures and languages. Everyone knows the word “yum.” Our dinner was a combination of Chinese and not-Chinese. Over the course of the first week, we’d drive through Pete’s Place in Oakhurst, purchase a few “Lunchables” for eating in the car, and drive through McDonald’s for drinks.

Sierra Homestay teacher with one of the family members  - July 2014 - photo by Kellie FlanaganIt turns out there are plenty of McDonalds in China, just no drive-throughs! These kinds of conveniences we take for granted are all a little bit exciting to our patient and kind visitors. Perhaps they were just being polite.

The girls marveled at our dog, our cat, our lizard and even the frog I caught from the hot tub for them to touch. The pine cones were a curiosity, and they even came with me into the chicken coop, so we know they are brave or perhaps have no sense of smell. Finally, after a few hours of getting to know each other, it was time for bed. The girls seemed to sleep well and were up and ready early the next morning.

Their second day of school passed and in the afternoon, the kids, teachers, helpers, host families and friends all went to Bass Lake. Some of the kids couldn’t resist the water while others preferred not to be near it, instead enjoying lunch under the pine trees. Most students in the group did not know each other before this trip, and the lake was a perfect place for everyone to relax and have fun.

Sierra Homestay students 2014 watch as Steve Riley draws - photo by Eric HagenAfter class in the morning on Wednesday, July 23, the kids and their entourage of caring adults found themselves up at Nelder Grove of Giant Sequoias. They weren’t there just to look; they’d come to volunteer to fix a trail that camp host Brenda Negley had identified as needing work.

Volunteerism of the sort we see commonly in the foothills is not a customary sight in China, so it was great to watch the kids work hard on behalf of others. The group was enthusiastic and by the day’s end, one part of beautiful Nelder Grove had seen some improvement by their capable hands.

On Thursday, the Sierra Homestay group was headed into Yosemite, hiking Mariposa Grove and driving all the way to Glacier Point. Friday gave everyone family time, and our girls wanted to visit the Coarsegold Museum before they spent the evening making dinner at the home of another host family, transporting a few precious ingredients back and forth.

Sierra Homestay students 2014 are enthralled as they listen to Steve Riley - photo by Eric HagenFinally came the weekend, and families scattered various places. New York is right around the corner for these kids, so I wasn’t sure if shopping in Fresno was exactly the answer, but we gave it a whirl.

Naturally, we’d already shopped locally, taking our charges to Branches Books, Time For Tea, both grocery stores, and Rite Aid. They girls also went to the Farmer’s Market at True Value, and ran into friends inside the store.

We have some other local stops in mind to check out before they leave, but with a tank of gas and a total of four teen girls in the Honda, we drove to Fashion Fair in Fresno for a couple of hours and the trip was pretty successful. Polly got some jeans, which are hard for her to find with the style she prefers in China, and a jacket. Queen got a cute pair of shorts. The Chinese girls and the American girls have been getting along well, and it’s nice to see the effort being put forth on both ends.

Sierra Homestay students from China visit Nelder Grove and help out by moving a trail - July 2014 - photo by Eric HagenOn Sunday, some of the family went to church and some stayed home, and we all spent time preparing a wonderful, traditional Chinese feast. Okay, I didn’t do very much, to be honest. The girls did most everything, and their knife skills are impressive.

Queen is a bit of a “fashionista” who knows how to wear a hat well, while Polly prefers to spend time reading or cooking. Just as in any family, the kids have different things that they like to do, but everyone pitched in for Sunday dinner, and it was truly one of the best dinners we’ve ever had.

Afterwards, everyone stayed around the table talking, learning what our American names would be in Chinese, and playing some silly games that the girls didn’t seem to mind at all. There was so much laughter among us, I suffered a little rib-cage pain as a result. Now, that’s a great night.

L-R Allie Queen Clara Polly return from a successful shopping trip to Fresno - Sierra Homestay Students 2014 - photo by Kellie FlanaganAs of today, we’re on the down-slope. These girls who were strangers a week ago are now part of our family, forever, whether they like it or not! I actually have tears in my eyes as I write this, anticipating their departure on Friday. Teenagers are amazing in any language, and it’s an honor to host these girls.

The families who are participating in this program, along with program leaders including Bruce and Lori Howard, Sheila Adams, Tammi Carter, and Eric Hagen, are to be commended for their willingness to open their doors and their arms to our visitors from so far away.

Family dinner at the Briley house with Queen Polly Dave Spenser Clara Nick - Sierra Homestay 2014 - photo by Kellie FlanaganThe 32 young people and their teachers will be departing the area on Friday, Aug. 1.

In the meantime, if you see a group of Chinese kids who are starting to look a little bit “foothill,” now you know why.

For more information, contact Sierra Homestay on Facebook.

Visit the Sierra Homestay website here.

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