American and Chinese high school students interact during Mr. William Brown’s English class at Mira Costa High School on Tuesday morning. The school
American and Chinese high school students interact during Mr. William Brown's English class at Mira Costa High School on Tuesday morning. The school hosted 30 high school kids from China as part of a tour of U.S. schools. (Brittany Murray / Staff Photographer)

One of the first things Qivvei Zhang noticed upon arriving in the United States this week is the cleanliness of the environment and the abundance of birds - in China, she said, there are almost no birds.

DeFeng Wang was surprised that students in U.S. high schools are allowed - even encouraged - to use gadgets and headphones in class.

Both are members of a group of 30 high school students from China who are on a coast-to-coast field trip of American schools and colleges. This week, they were in Manhattan Beach, visiting the local school district's namesake middle school on Monday and Mira Costa High School on Tuesday.

Nick Coons, right uses his hands to form a house over his head, conveying Yanan Li the issue of homelessness in America during Mr. William Browns English
Nick Coons, right uses his hands to form a house over his head, conveying Yanan Li the issue of homelessness in America during Mr. William Browns English class at Mira Costa High School on Tuesday morning. (Brittany Murray / Staff Photographer)

School officials at Manhattan Beach Unified learned only Friday that the group from Tianjun, a city near Beijing, would be coming through. But they happily scrambled to accommodate.

"I, of course, said we'd love to have them - what an amazing opportunity," said Carolyn Seaton, the district's executive director of educational services. "When you think about it, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, this couldn't have happened."

On Tuesday, the 30 Chinese students crammed into the classroom of English teacher William Brown, who, as it happens, recently returned to the school after a four-year stint teaching English in China.

For students in Brown's class, Tuesday was typical in how students broke into pairs to work together on a classroom assignment.


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But this time, each partnered with a student who grew up on the other side of the planet.

The assignment: list and discuss problems that plague your school, your city, your country, your world.

Not surprisingly, the language barrier proved a challenge. Mira Costa sophomore Eden Marquis struggled to explain the concept of bullying to Zhenkun Chen.

"It's like when people have judgment, and are talking bad - I don't like you, you don't like me - being mean."

Zhenkun knit his brow, struggling to understand.

Bridging the language gap for this ambitious assignment was a handy translator: the smartphone. Using a free App called Google Translator, Eden typed in "bullying." Out came two Chinese characters. Zhenkun nodded enthusiastically.

Also on hand was the most apt translator of all - a student their own age named Edan Lee, a Mira Costa senior who grew up in Taiwan.

Through Edan, Qivvei shared some of her first impressions of the United States - such as her observation about the birds.

(As it turns out, China has an extreme shortage of birds due to Mao Zedong's 1958 campaign to eradicate sparrows and other "pests" that ate grain seeds.

L-R: Zhuozhen Han and Jerphina Lei Lua discuss the assignment  provided by Mr. William Brown, an English teacher at Mira Costa High School.
L-R: Zhuozhen Han and Jerphina Lei Lua discuss the assignment provided by Mr. William Brown, an English teacher at Mira Costa High School. (Brittany Murray / Staff Photographer)
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The daughter of a businesswoman and an engineer, Qivvei was also struck by the affable nature of the teacher, Mr. Brown.

"It feels very casual," said Edan, the translator. "She sees the teacher as like a friend - not a really strict teacher."

For his part, Brown saw the visit as an opportunity to break down stereotypes on both sides. (Many Chinese people believe Americans to be white, loud and wealthy, he said.)

"Here's an opportunity to take one step towards a global society that I don't think I'll ever see in my lifetime," he said. "But maybe my daughter will."

The delegation of students also will be traveling to UCLA and Stanford before leaving for Las Vegas and finally Boston, where they will take a tour of Harvard University.

rob.kuznia@dailybreeze.com

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