El Verano/Penglai students exchange letters and songs

Twenty-eight fourth graders at El Verano Elementary School have some new buddies – in China.  They are so excited about all things Chinese they are even going to start learning Mandarin.  Because, guess what they’ve already discovered – fourth graders in China can speak English.

Jim Tutor’s class now has an exchange program with students in Penglai, arranged by the Penglai committee of the Sonoma Sister Cities Association.  His students are communicating with their faraway friends on the Shandong Peninsula, which is similar to Sonoma in that it is China’s premiere region for grape growing and winemaking.

Last summer, the mayor of Penglai and five other civic leaders visited here and met with members of the Penglai sister cities committee.  One of the triumphs of the day was an agreement to foster an exchange between young students, and it’s off to a roaring start.

Sister cities member Lynne Joiner, a retired television journalist and author with a deep professional background in China, went to Shanghai for business in December and took a side trip to Penglai to visit the students at Pen Lai Yi San Shi Yan, Tutor’s exchange class. Speaking Mandarin, she was able to tell them all about the students at El Verano.  She brought them handwritten letters, photographs and videos, a poster of “A Diary of a Whimpy Kid,” a map of California and a copy of the Sonoma Index-Tribune.

When Joiner returned to Sonoma, she gave Tutor’s class a full report and presented them with seashells and framed drawings the Penglai students made that now adorn their classroom.

In the full spirit of cultural exchange, 10 members of the Penglai Sister Cities association arranged an educational (and fun) celebration for Chinese New Year in Tutor’s class. They learned to sing a song in Mandarin and listened intently to the translation of a Chinese poem taught to them by committee member Gigi Pfleger, a native of China who has lived here for 18 years.  “We all enjoy the same moon,” she explained to eager ears, students who quite probably had never thought about that before.

Caroline Patrick taught them some of the principles of feng shui, and urged them all to not put anything underneath their beds so there would be “room for knowledge.”

The highlight of the day was making pot stickers, traditional Chinese dumplings, and then enjoying a feast of their efforts along with other traditional New Year’s food in China – sliced oranges, cucumber salad and hot tea.

“Pot stickers are better than McDonald’s,” Diego Echeverria announced to the class, while Abby Castillo, who had never had pot stickers before, said, “They’re really, really, really good.”

While the students ate, Joiner had photos of Penglai on a continual loop, and she shared information about the culture. “Food for thought while you have food for your belly,” she said, while explaining that New Years is a very important holiday in China and that everyone travels long distances to be with their families. “There, it’s like Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all rolled together.”

She told them that in China it is the Year of the Horse, which is supposed to be a lively and adventurous year.

A poster on the classroom wall says it is a year filled with good judgment and that you will feel exhilarated and accomplished.  Most of the students were born in 2003, the Year of the Goat.

Caleb Perez was pondering what it would be like to go to China, and answered his own question about how long it would take to get there – “Forever!”

Joiner likes to imagine that might be in the realm of possibility if they can somehow raise the funds.  Years ago, she and other parents took her son’s young soccer team to China, an incredible opportunity for those kids she would love to repeat.  “We need an angel,” she said.  She added that it would also be wonderful if the Penglai students could come here.

Soon, Tutor’s students will begin Mandarin lessons twice a month.  “Many of these kids are already bilingual.  Let’s give them a leg up and make them trilingual,” Joiner said.

Tutor is thrilled his class is having this opportunity. “We are lucky that we already have a dual culture in our class, the Mexican and American cultures blended,” he said. “They think that Chinese is Chinese food and Chinese restaurants, so this is a great learning experience.”

“I like that this is people to people,” Joiner said.  “I want Americans to become much more aware of the world around them.  China is really a very important part of the world.

When the Penglai delegation visited last summer, sister cities hosted a dinner held in Joiner’s back yard, that was deliberately low key and fun.  They grilled hamburgers and hot dogs and played pingpong.  Joiner said everyone had a great time. Now El Verano’s fourth graders are enjoying the amazing result of that true friendship shared.