When he was a Yosemite High School senior in the 1980s, Bryan McMechan’s parents decided to take in a foreign exchange student from Spain.
“Having an exchange student in my home when I was a teenager was a good experience for all of us,” Bryan said. “I was into golf, was on the school’s golf team, and one day, I met a female golfer, who was an exchange student from Spain. She was a really good golfer, and I told her so, and she said, ‘If you think I’m good, you should see my brother.’”
Bryan had plenty of opportunity to “see” her brother, and not only playing golf. He was invited to come to the Mountain Area as an exchange student, to live with Bryan and his family.
“He was the best golfer in the San Joaquin Valley,” Bryan added, “and got a full ride scholarship to Fresno State. He’s now teaching golf in Spain.”
It’s a positive experience that stayed with Bryan over the years, and now, decades later, as a father of three, he and his wife, Cory, decided to invite a Chinese exchange student to live with them during the 2014 school year.
It was a first for this family of five, including a 19-year-old attending college in Los Angeles, a 17-year-old attending Yosemite High, and 10-year-old, Logan.
“It was a chance for our family to meet and learn about someone from an entirely different culture,” Cory said. “Also, the thought of helping a student achieve the dream of attending a school in the USA seemed gratifying.”
That’s how Cruise Tian, 14, came to temporarily live with the McMechans. (The name “Cruise” was chosen because Tom Cruise is his favorite actor, and he hopes to become an actor one day with a star on the Walk of Fame).
The first and most obvious challenge was the language barrier. When Cruise arrived in Oakhurst, he only knew a few polite phrases, like “thank you,” “nice to meet you.”
“We quickly realized he didn’t understand what we were saying to him most of the time,” Cory said. “Our son, Logan, was very influential in helping Cruise learn enough English to help him communicate with others. Logan’s persistent personality of never taking “no” for an answer was a huge benefit for Cruise. He would insist that Cruise play basketball, video games, and come with us on family outings, whether Cruise was up for it or not. It helped develop a strong bond and better skills for the both of them.”
While there were many high points guaranteed to leave lasting memories for all, taking Cruise to California Adventures, where he rode a roller coaster for the first time was a thrill for him. And even though what Cruise enjoyed most was going to the movies and watching basketball, a couple of highlights came while walking through the Giant Sequoias, and attending the USC/Fresno State football game.
“The opportunity of witnessing Cruise enjoy YHS and all it offers, the family and friends who made him feel welcome, and the growth in his independence this school year has been really rewarding,” Cory said. “We will definitely consider having an exchange student again in the future. This experience has given our family insight into how fortunate we are to live in such a gracious, beautiful, and free country that others do whatever it takes to become part of it.”
Cruise plans on returning to the U.S. to attend a private school in Chicago. And since his favorite American food is pizza, the famous, Chicago-style pizza should prove to be a real treat.
It was also the first time the Peterson family of Oakhurst had taken in an exchange student.
“Our daughter (Page) was going off to college and we thought it would be fun to try,” Erik Peterson said. “My mother, Diane, has been working with the liasion from China and YHS for a couple of years now and thought it would be a good idea. We asked our son, Ty, what he thought since it would impact him the most, and he was all for it, so we decided to go for it.”
And so, Jackie Zhang, 16, an outgoing Chinese teen, began his school year at YHS, along with 14-year-old Ty. Just as with the McMechans, there was the obvious language barrier, but because Jackie had a good English vocabulary, that obstacle was easily overcome. It was more difficult adjusting to having a virtual stranger in the home, while making sure that Jackie was comfortable.
“It is always awkward having someone in your home space. You can’t just walk around in your pajamas and not worry about modesty,” Erik said. “We worried about what Jackie liked to eat and if he was happy. Was he understanding his homework? We spent a few late evenings on poetry. Was he homesick? We scared him a little with all our pets. He had never had a cat so we renamed one of our kittens his Chinese name and made it his pet. It wasn’t a great success, but we tried.”
Jackie also had to adapt to living with dogs and goats. A mutual love of sports helped bridge the gap between the different cultures and disparate life styles.
“He knew so many facts and information about all kinds of sports, it was often a great conversational piece at dinner,” continued Erik. “Jackie was willing to participate in basketball and baseball at Yosemite, which were sports our son, Ty, played.”
Actually, it was Jackie’s participating in sports that proved to be most memorable.
“He was a part of the team even if he didn’t get to play much,” Erik said. “When he did get on the court or on the field ... he tried so hard and improved so much.”
For Jackie, the most memorable moment was something he had never experienced before - a birthday party.
“. Chinese don’t celebrate birthdays,” Erik said. “We had him invite his friends from basketball and school and played a few traditional kids games, like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and we had a pinata.”
With the school year now over, the Peterson family came away with newly discovered insights.
“We learned that we Americans are very blessed with the opportunities we have available to offer our children,” Erik explained. “We do not have to send our children away to get a good education. We learned that family is so important and being able to spend time together is priceless. We can watch our children grow up and invest quality time with them. Jackie has been away from his family for much of his education. We can’t imagine this.”
Despite being so far away from home and living in an unfamiliar culture, Jackie said the year he spent at Yosemite and living with the Petersons was “great.”
“I honestly think I have learned a lot of stuff that I had never learn in my home country,” Jackie said in his own words, “to experience the American traditional cultures in the host family, getting know more United States history.”
After returning to his home in China for a brief stay, Jackie will return, attending a boarding school, Rio Lindo Adventist Academy, in Healdsburg. He said he was happy to continue his “high school career in California.”
There, Jackie can also continue his favorite activity (fishing), and eating his favorite food (Mexican).
While not in the immediate future, the Petersons may take in another foreign exchange student down the road, especially since “Ty enjoyed having a brother for the first time.”