Exchange student elected prom queen, compares schools


A typical weekday in Jinxi Han’s life in a Chinese boarding school includes at least 11 hours of school and studying. It starts with rising at 6 or 6:30 a.m., breakfast and a free hour (which could be used for study) before classes start at 8 a.m. School ends at 5 p.m., followed by a free hour until dinner at 6 p.m. One half hour of television, 7-7:30 p.m. Study hall from 7:30 to 9:40 p.m., with a 10 minute break every 40 minutes. Then, back to the dorm, where eight girls share a room and sleep in bunk beds. 

Han, Patrick Henry High School’s foreign exchange student this year, said she quickly learned that things are different here.

A fluent English speaker with an outgoing personality, she has plunged into academic and extra-curricular life at her new high school. A 19-year old senior, she joined the tennis team and math team—where she scored a team high of 10 points and helped the team take second place in the district. (“Math here is kind of easy,” she said, sounding apologetic.) She is a Student Council member and a Chinese level three teaching assistant. Back home, she trained in broadcasting and Chinese opera. She plays the Hulusi, a traditional Chinese flute-like instrument, on which she recently performed in a school talent show.

Fred And, to her delight, Henry students elected her Prom Queen this month. About 20 students entered the competition, which preliminary voting winnowed to four females and four males. On prom night, Han said, “We stood in a line and everyone took pictures. There was a lot of suspense. They put the crown over each of our heads. When I won, I was so surprised. I danced with the prom king, Fred Henry. I didn’t know him.

“I was very hyper afterwards,” she added. “I sent a lot of pictures home to my mother.” She said her host “mom,” Henry teacher Donna Kelly, was more excited about the honor than her real mother, who was unfamiliar with a prom. “We don’t have proms in China. We have big dances, but nothing school-sponsored. There are no queens or kings.”

Han said her foreign exchange program included training on how to be an American high school student. “In China, education is more serious and we must be very respectful of our teachers. They told us that in America, students can yell out answers in class. It is more casual. I like this way better; students and teachers are more equal.”

She has her life plan pretty well laid out: she’ll attend the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., in the fall, where she plans to major in political science. After that, she wants to go to Yale law school and become a lawyer.

“I became an exchange student because I wanted to attend an American college. Chinese colleges are totally different. We have a lot of students in China and it is very competitive. The system is totally unfair. There are three days of testing, June 6, 7, and 8 for the college entrance exam. What college you can attend is based on your score. If my score is 600 and the college I want requires a 700, I can’t go there. It is very hard to transfer schools in China. It’s not like here. That is the downside of Chinese college.”

Han graduates in a week and is looking forward to going home this summer because she has missed her mother and father. She has no siblings, she said, because Chinese families are only allowed to have one child. “People here come from bigger families, especially the Hmong families. When they find out I’m an only child, they ask me if I think I am spoiled. I say I’m not, because I have a lot of cousins and I spend a lot of time with my family at my grandparents’ house.”

She stays in touch with her parents by web link and said it was hard, at first, to work out a timeframe for contacting them. “We are in daytime when they are sleeping. We talk [via computer] on Friday nights.”

In China, a class is comprised of 50 students who stay in one classroom all day. When classes change, the teachers come to them. It was a shock for her, she said, to experience all the students pouring out into the halls at Henry when the bell rang, and to have to change classes.

“We only have five minutes between classes, to go to the rest room or go to your locker. I am so rushed, I am running all the time. Patrick Henry is like a circle. At first, I couldn’t find the classrooms. At the four minute bell I asked students, ‘Where is the room?’ The students are really friendly, they would always show me. Now I can find my way.”

She said she gets very hungry during the day because she has second lunch, at 12:40 p.m. “I don’t eat school lunch, I bring my own. I don’t like hamburgers or fast food. Food has been a big adjustment. Also, at first, I was worried about making friends. I joined the tennis team and they were training before school started.” That helped, she added, because then she already knew some students when she started classes.

She said she has had a few language problems. “In China, all the students have to learn English, but we don’t speak it every day, only in class time. My host family has helped me a lot. This morning, they told me I say ‘ax’ instead of ‘ask.'”

Colloquialisms have also been a challenge, she added. “When we say ‘yes’ in China, we say ‘um.’ Nobody understands that here, so now I say ‘uh-huh.’ But when I say ‘uh-huh’ to my mother in China, she gets confused.”

She looks forward to attending St. Benedict, she said, because there are special accommodations for parents. “My parents will come and see me there for one or two weeks. They have never been to the U.S. before.”

Han said that if she passes all her tests (including the MCA, Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, a state test required for high school graduation) she will receive a Patrick Henry diploma. She has already passed all her tests at her Chinese high school, so if she wants to, she could also receive a diploma from that school. Chinese school terms are similar to American, with six years of elementary school, three years of junior high and three years of high school. She likes American high schools, she said, because students get to choose what classes they want to take; in China, they don’t have that option.

She said she has enjoyed living with her host family and having two little sisters, ages 5 and 10. They have taken her all over the Twin Cities, and recently to a cabin up north. Last winter, she said, although she was outdoors a lot, her hosts wouldn’t let her shovel show. “They said that was a bad thing. But if I visit them next year, they said they would let me shovel snow.” At her 19th birthday party last month, she said her hosts made her a banner that read, “Jinxi is officially a Minnesotan!”

Tom Murray, administrative teacher on special assignment at Henry, said that Han is “energetic, fearless, and funny. It has been a pleasure having her here this year. She always cheers everybody up.” Han has likely inspired some Henry students to apply for China study abroad programs, he added. She also loves to learn languages, and has been learning Hmong and Japanese.

Han said she has enjoyed her American high school experience very much. In general, she added, “I am having a pretty good time.”