SANFORD — Bundled up in their winter coats, the Cui family shivered in Sanford’s unexpectedly chilly February weather.
“It’s cold!” Xiangyang Cui, the father of the family, said as his wife, Shuya Che, acted as interpreter. North Carolinians they met assured the family from Nanjing, the People’s Republic of China, that the wintry blasts that swept through the state during the month were not typical winter weather for the area.
The bitter cold was one more memory Cui and his daughter, Yixiao Cui, would take home with them. He and the couple’s 15-year-old daughter traveled approximately 7,000 miles from Nanjing to Sanford, N.C., to spend the month of February with Che and do some sightseeing. Cui is an economics professor at Nanjing University of Economics and Finance and Yixiao is a tenth-grader at the Nanjing Foreign Language School. Both took advantage of their semester breaks to make the trip.
In China, Che is an associate professor at the International College for Chinese Studies, Nanjing Normal University. She has been in the United States since August as a visiting professor at Central Carolina Community College and instructor of the college’s Confucius Classroom.
The Classroom, the first at an American community college, is a partnership with N.C. State University’s Confucius Institute, Nanjing Normal University, and Hanban, the office of the Chinese Language Council International. Che will teach at the college for another year and a half. In May, she will spend several weeks in China with the Confucius Institute’s summer study program for interested Americans and others.
“Chinese is second only to English as an international language of business,” said CCCC President Bud Marchant. “Our goal with the Confucius Classroom is to educate students for an increasingly global business environment and increase business and cultural links between the local area and China. The visit by Shuya Che’s family was a wonderful opportunity to increase cross-cultural understanding and friendship. We are delighted they could come.”
Meeting Americans and seeing some of the country was an impressive experience for the family.
“My husband said that, in China, we know many things about America, but we wanted to see what the real America is like with our eyes,” Che said.
While at the college, Che lives with Matt Garrett, the former president of Central Carolina C.C., and his wife, Becky, in Sanford. The Garretts hosted her family during their visit and took them to see the local area, the beach, and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. They had to cut short their visit there because of an impending snowstorm. The Cui family also joined a tour group and visited sites in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C.
“The Lincoln Memorial was marvelous,” Yixiao said. “Lincoln is a great man.”
The big cities were exciting, but the family loved the rural areas.
“New York and Washington were beautiful,” Che said, “but the countryside is more beautiful. You have more land than I imagined. That’s what we all think.”
The sightseeing was impressive, but it was the people they met that created the warmest memories.
“We knew Americans were outgoing and friendly,” Che said. “Now, we know this with our own eyes. Americans are friendly as Chinese. Americans and Chinese can have real friendship in the future.”
The family not only learned more about the United States and Americans, but also shared information about their country and culture with those they met. Che laughed as she said some Americans think Chinese eat soup with chopsticks.
“No more than you use forks to eat it,” she said. “Many think modern China is not developed, but it is developing very fast. Some Americans asked me questions like the Chinese don’t know about computers, but we have what you have. The Chinese hope more Americans will go to China and visit and get to know the real China with their own eyes.”
As the Cui family stayed with the Garretts, both were surprised at some of the eating differences. The Chinese eat broth soups with some noodles in them, while most American soups have vegetables and meats.
Che said that, after a meal, her family eats fruit. Staying with the Garretts, they became acquainted with American’s love of sweet desserts. Most surprising to them was eating ice cream and cold drinks in cold weather. The Garretts were surprised that a cup of hot water was the usual beverage with a Chinese meal.
“We use tap water and boil it,” Che said. “We also drink hot tea, but not ice tea.”
The Cuis have both a Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken and a McDonald’s near their Nanjing apartment. Both the Cuis and Garretts laughed as Che said that, since Colonel Sanders is older, the restaurant is referred to as “Grandfather Kentucky” and McDonald’s is called “Uncle McDonald.”
When not sightseeing, Yixiao, the daughter, spent several days each week at Lee County High School, sitting in on AP European History and AP Chemistry classes and becoming acquainted with the students.
“I wanted to meet people my age, talk to them and practice my English,” said Yixiao, who has been studying English for seven years.
She goes by the nickname, Xiao-Xiao, pronounced in English approximately as “schau-schau.” That was still a challenge for most Americans, so when people stumbled over her name, she said, “Just call me ‘Smile’ — that’s what my name means in Chinese.”
American and Chinese high schools are very different, she said. Her school is seven stories high and has about 3,000 students, while Lee Senior has two stories and 1,400 students. Here, class enrollments number in the 20s; in China, there are approximately 60 in a class. In the United States, teachers stay in the classroom and the students change classes; in China, the students stay in one room and the teachers come to them.
At home, Yixiao is in school from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., compared to the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule at Lee Senior. Lee students are on the block system, taking four 90-minute classes each day during a semester. In China, Yixiao has 45-minute classes, and studies eight or nine courses each day for the whole school year.
There was one similarity: the lunchroom. That’s where students, whether in China or Sanford, gather to enjoy their lunch break and talk with their friends. Yixiao ate lunch with new acquaintances from her Lee Senior classes.
“She really fits in,” said Taylor Batten, a Lee senior who served as Yixiao’s mentor and friend on campus. “We want her to feel at home here. I think it’s cool that she’s learning to know and understand the way of life here. I would like her to take back that we’re welcoming, that Americans as individuals are all different, and that it’s awesome that we can stand up for what we believe in.”
The Cuis also had the opportunity to visit Moncure Baptist Church with the Garretts. There they made more friends and saw a side of Americans that many foreign visitors never do: their faith. The family was impressed.
“America has a belief of God and the nation,” Cui said thoughtfully. “Because of this belief, America has strength that can make it overcome everything.”
On March 1, Garrett took Cui and Yixiao to RDU Airport for their flight home. Looking back over their visit, he said, “Che and her family are incredibly well-educated and, at the same time, very humble. They’re wonderful people. I think we Americans have a lot to learn from them.”