Chilly setting for warm East-West encounters

On a clear day in rural Vermont, the bucolic vistas seem to transcend state borders.

But for many students here, the panorama goes beyond mountain ranges and offers a glimpse of how their counterparts live on the other side of the world.

The Asian Studies Outreach Program (ASOP) is part of a growing effort in the United States to educate young people about their global partners in the East. As Asia continues to raise its profile in the American consciousness, demand is increasing for more information about and exposure to its cultures.

Located at the University of Vermont, Burlington, the 15-year-old education and exchange program prepares K-12 students and teachers, as well as communities, for what it sees as the growing importance of Asia in the 21st century.

"With China and Japan becoming major world players, we must provide opportunities to learn more about each other," says Jeufei Wang, director of ASOP.

Replacing outdated images

A recent study by the New York-based Asia Society found that Asia-related school courses - if they existed at all - tended to be outdated and biased. Yet it also discovered that 70 percent of college-bound students believe that learning more about Asia will prepare them for life and work in the new century.

That's where ASOP steps in. The program, largely funded by the nonprofit Freeman Foundation in New York, provides a range of learning resources: student and teacher exchanges, graduate courses and curriculum design for teachers, and such materials as calligraphy pens and much-needed textbooks on Asia.

ASOP began in 1986 with three UVM professors and Mr. Wang, then a UVM graduate student. Since then, a network of nonprofits, nearby universities, and educators in both Vermont and Asia has joined the effort, reaching more than 80 schools so far.

Vermont might seem an unlikely location for an Asian-studies drive. A small state with more cows than people, it doesn't boast much cultural diversity. In the exchanges, for example, "often [Vermont] students receive their first encounter with someone who does not look as they do," says Professor Wang.

Perhaps because of that, interest in exchanges runs high. Last month, for example, ASOP cosponsored the visit of 10 high-schoolers from southern China to experience Vermont classrooms for three weeks. Although the Vermont high-schoolers had all met Chinese students many times before, stereotypes seemed to dissolve on both sides.

"In school we only learn about ancient China, Mao, and how everyone worked on communes, not current culture.... I'm amazed how many similarities we have," says Vermont high school junior Gabriel Calvi.

His family hosted high-schooler Hu Dasen, who is from Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton). Hu says he had learned a lot about US culture through American films. "But I didn't imagine Vermont could be a part of the US," he adds. "It's so rural!"

Though one goal for the Asia program is to shed cultural stereotypes, another is simply for people from the two continents to learn new things from each other.

The 10 Chinese high-schoolers from warm climes, for example, experienced snow for the first time - and their first snow day. The Vermont natives, who sometimes learn skiing before walking, were quick to teach the basics. The Chinese were also surprised how much freedom students have to take courses like band and woodworking, or to participate in after-school activities, like dance and sports.

"In China, we only have time for math, science, Chinese, and English," says Deng Kai, noting that students must pass rigid examinations on those subjects in order to get into college.

Class size was another surprise. Chinese students are used to classes of 60 teenagers, where the teachers rotate instead of the students. While they appreciated smaller classes, they didn't like how "the revolving classmates didn't know each other as well," Guo Yan Ting says. The Americans, for their part, learned Chinese words and calligraphy, and celebrated the Chinese New Year with a parade and Chinese food - without the fortune cookies (an American invention).

Creating a buzz around the community

But it's not just young Vermonters warming up to their Pacific Rim colleagues. Since 1988, almost 300 teachers, administrators, and professors have traveled to China and Japan through the UVM program. One goal, says Wang, is to pique teachers' interest and to provide them some firsthand contact with Asian culture and language to bring back to their classes.

Tom Connor, for example, is a history teacher at Leland and Gray Union Middle/High School in Townshend, a small school surrounded by trailer homes and evergreens. His first trip to China was in 1997, and he came back with so much enthusiasm that he wanted other people in his community to learn about Asia, too. So with the aid of fellow teachers, he initiated a community-education project.

Several Chinese professors from UVM have given town-hall lectures in Townshend on such topics as Chinese history, geography, and language, as well as demonstrations of acupuncture and tai chi, a form of self-defense. "Even just having lectures, there's a buzz around the community. People in supermarkets want to have a conversation about it," Leland librarian Regina Kacik says. "Every little bit makes the world a smaller place," she adds.

Other schools have exchanged artwork with students in China, practiced calligraphy, and learned tai chi. "I couldn't have anticipated the impact and enthusiasm. I provided the content - I didn't know teachers could be so creative," says Wang.

Programs similar to the one at UVM exist elsewhere, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Universities, and the Five Colleges Center for East Asian Studies, in Massachusetts. But to Wang's knowledge, none are as comprehensive as Vermont's.

Wang credits ASOP's success to the amount of local control in the Vermont education system, enabling such grass-roots programs to flourish. And, says Wang, though Vermonters are not very culturally diverse, they tend to be curious about other cultures.

"This is a part of the world they need to - must - know about in the 21st century; it can't be foreign to them," says Ms. Kacik.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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