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Cultural Immersion

July 13, 2012

 

In the fall of 2010, Jia Li arrived at Cannon School not sure what to expect. She was alone, uncertain, and quiet.

“When I came to the U.S. two years ago, I had no one,” Li says. “I didn’t want to talk much because English was not a language I used daily then.”

All of that eventually changed.  Li, who chose Yimo as her American name, quickly immersed herself in life at Cannon.  She studied hard, practiced her English, and even auditioned for roles in a few Cannon Theater Company productions.

“Cannon was a place where I met both cultural and academic challenges and came to be a better person,” Li recalls. “It was hard to live the Cannon way at first as an international student. I struggled with language and the relationships with others but everything worked out after all. I will say that life at Cannon was exciting, fun, and also educational.”

All in the Family

According to Li, the success she found at Cannon was due in large part to her relationship with her American hosts – Dr. Matt Rush, head of Middle School, and the Rush family.

“I can tell you stories about this for three days nonstop,” Li says. “Everyone in the Rush family is truly family to me. I believe it’s the same to them. They are already helping by treating me as one of their very own. They have always been there for me during all the ups and downs. I was involved in so many Rush family events, like running 5Ks, traveling to Santa Fe for Christmas, and attending Dr. Rush’s graduation for his doctorate degree.”

Matt and Lacy Rush moved to Concord with their children – Michaela ’19, James ’22, and Katherine ’25 – from Virginia four years ago. Matt is Cannon’s head of Middle School and assistant head of school. Lacy teaches French and is the local coordinator for an international student placement agency.

Looking back, Lacy recalls how the decision to host Li came about.

“Three Chinese girls were coming to Cannon and they needed host families,” she remembers. “We had room and Matt and I were both exchange students who lived with host families in France while we were in college. It was a great experience for us and we thought we could provide that same experience as host parents.”

According to Li, they did. In fact, she refers to her experience with the Rushes, and at Cannon, as “life-changing.”

“Everyone in the family liked talking to me and asking me questions, which kind of forced me to speak at first,” Li says. “As you can imagine, after a while, I gained an incredible amount of confidence and vocabulary. By vocabulary I mean these words that we use on a daily basis but Chinese teachers don’t teach. Like ‘spinach.’ I didn’t know what ‘spinach’ meant two years ago.”

But the Rushes didn’t stop at green, leafy vegetables!

“In my opinion, that was the most important thing, they made me speak English,” Li says. “Of course, in our conversation we didn’t only talk about spinach. Both Dr. and Mrs. Rush are really knowledgeable people. I have heard about Bible stories, French history, dessert recipes, and baseball players from them.”

Lacy Rush feels fortunate that her family had the opportunity to host Li in their home. “At the time, our kids were ages three, seven, and nine, so we just told them we were getting a new sister for the next year and they were really excited,” she recalls.

Respectful Guidance

Because Li was a junior at the time, and wanted to apply to college in the United States, Dr. and Mrs. Rush took on the added role of helping her with the college application process – not something host families typically sign up for.

“The college search was a place where we had to guide her a bit more with respect to all of the details,” Lacy says. “At the same time, however, she allowed us to go through the college search process as parents, well before we have to do it with our own firstborn. 

Li is quick to express her appreciation to the Rushes for the respect they demonstrated toward her and her culture throughout her time with them. She does, though, want to clear up one misperception about Chinese customs.

“I was really conscious of myself being Chinese but they brought me into the American society,” she says. “At the same time, they have given great respect and interest to my own culture. When it was the Chinese New Year in the first year, Mrs. Rush called me down for dinner as always, I found decorations and ‘Happy New Year’ in Chinese on the windows, handwritten by Mrs. Rush! I also found lucky money and oranges on my plate. According to some rumors, Americans think Chinese people eat oranges for New Year, but we don’t!”

Coming Back

The incident with the oranges aside, Li and the Rush family turned out to be a great fit. So much so, that when the time came to decide where she would live during her second year at Cannon – her senior year – very little discussion was needed.

Lacy Rush recalls that the decision really took care of itself. “By October of 2010, Yimo was already settled into life at Cannon and it was clear that she wanted to stay there for her senior year as well as attend a college in the States,” she says. “It was really an easy decision for us and we told her at that point that she was welcome to stay.”

Li agrees. “It was a mutual choice,” she says. “We had built up a wonderful relationship in the first year. So when it came down to the deciding time, it was very natural for us to choose each other again.”

Looking back on it now, Li articulates a deep gratitude for how it all worked out. “I have always been really grateful to them for choosing me in the first year and for how we treated each other. As long as they were willing to have me again, I was more than happy to stay with them for another year. I love each of them very much, so it was very clear for me that I wanted to have them for another year.”

Good Hosts

Li recognizes the significance of what families like the Rushes can offer visiting international students. She encourages Cannon School families to consider the opportunity to be a host family. “First of all, I think these families who have hosted an international student or are thinking about hosting an international student deserve great respect,” Li says. “It is not an easy choice to make.”

Drawing on her firsthand experience as an international student at Cannon, Li shares what she thinks are the most important things a host family can do to support a student in their home.

“The top on my list will be talking to the student a lot,” Li says. “This was what the Rush family did for me and it was really helpful for me to overcome the language difficulty and get on track academically with other students. The other one would be getting the student involved in family activities. It can be a family movie night, a Scrabble game, or a cookout.”

Most importantly, Li encourages host families to actively welcome their visiting student into their lives. “I am sure that if some of you do make the final decision to be a host family, you are ready for a new daughter or son,” Li says. “It was important for me to feel like part of the family. I believe it will be the same for other international students.”

Lacy Rush agrees. She and Dr. Rush made a deliberate effort to articulate their expectations clearly.

“The single most important thing to having an effective hosting experience is communication,” Lacy says. “You have to be willing to tell the student rules, expectations, and family habits up front.  Don’t expect that he or she will ask.  Be open and open-minded. Also be prepared to have to push a little when it comes to family time.  International students may feel like they are ‘bothering you’ or ‘troubling you’ when in fact being together is part of being a family.”

Going Beyond

So, having welcomed Li into their family for two years, what happens now that she has graduated and returned to China for the summer?

“Yimo will attend college in the fall at University of California, Santa Barbara,” Lacy Rush explains. “We plan to see her every year at Christmas at the very least and she will still join us for family vacations.”  Until then, though, Li still plans to find ways to stay in close touch with the Rush family. “Now we still write ridiculously long e-mails to each other,” she says.

Whether it’s in a lengthy e-mail or in person, Li does not hesitate to express her appreciation for the experience she had as an international student at Cannon. “First of all, I want to say thank you to Cannon School and my host family for giving me this opportunity.” Li says. “The past two years were life-changing for me. The U.S. is a very different country from mine and I think Cannon is a good representative for the culture on the American side.”

Beyond her experiences in classrooms, on stage, and as part of Cannon’s Upper School, Li deeply appreciates her time in the Rush family’s home. “I’m so grateful that I was able to stay with them for two years,” Li says. “There is one thing in Chinese called ‘yuan.’ It means a close bond between people by destiny’s will. It’s like God wanted me and the Rush family to meet each other. I cannot express how thankful I am.”

Each year, Cannon School enrolls ten international students in the Upper School.  These students typically come to the United States for a one-year “American experience.”  In some cases, though, students will stay through graduation – usually with the intention of enrolling at an American college.  International students live with Cannon School families (or friends of Cannon School families) who generously open their homes to visiting students in return for an amazing cultural experience.

If you are interested in hosting an international student in your home, please contact Cannon School’s Admission Office at 704-721-7164.

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