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My year in Buffalo Chinese teen's journey takes her beyond the textbook

The definition of the word "genius" is not the "textbook readers" anymore. Colleges are not just looking for high grades, but also the ability for intercultural learning. My experiences in Buffalo have been memorable from the very moment I stepped off my flight from China. These experiences have enhanced my knowledge of the world.

I come from Xi'an City in China's Shaanxi Province. It is known for its Terra Cotta Soldiers. In China, I attend a large boarding high school of more than 3,000 students. At my school, I learned about the AFS program. It seemed very interesting because I would be living in a foreign place where I would meet many friends and learn about a new culture. At the end of sophomore year, I found out I was going to be an exchange student in Buffalo for the 2006-07 school year!

As soon as I found out, I read books and used the Internet to find out as much information about Buffalo as I could. I found out many things: Buffalo is famous for the gorgeous Niagara Falls, has the best chicken wings in the nation, and is one of the largest cities in New York State.

Last August, I stepped off the flight and met my host family, Stephen and Ruth Barnes and their daughters Rachel, 11, and Julia, 4. They are the best host family in the world! They treat me as if I am their own child.

I've also experienced what it is like to be an older sibling. It requires a lot of responsibility. I love my host sisters. Julia is so sweet. She would always give me hugs and kisses. Rachel is an extraordinary horse rider!

Making dumplings with my host family was a desirable thing. My mom back in China was so impressed when she saw the pictures of the dumplings I made. She knew I was not a spoiled child anymore. I was growing, becoming more independent!

During my stay in Buffalo, I attended City Honors, I met many friends there. At first, I did not know anyone. It was really scary. I joined cross-country, ski club and tennis and I made many friends through those clubs. They had difficulty pronouncing my name correctly, but these friends taught me so much. We went to movies, restaurants and the Justin Timberlake concert. I learned about the Sabres and the game of hockey. I even met Ryan Miller! I also taught my American friends many things. I established Club China at City Honors. At Club China, I taught Chinese. I was really proud of myself because I was able to present my culture to so many people who were interested. I never thought Americans were so interested in China!

Many things stood out to both my American friends and me. Girls always told me how lucky I was to have a tan. They asked me if I went to tanning salons. It was weird because I never heard of tanning salons. In China, girls try their hardest to make their skin light. Girls in China don't want to be tanned, which is why many girls in China buy the strongest sunscreen. That showed me right there that it is human nature for people to desire things they do not have.

Another thing that is different in China is the relationship between boys and girls. Boys and girls in America hang out casually. In China, if you were a girl and you were going out with a boy or vice versa, a big deal would be made.

My experience with the AFS has brought me friendships with other foreign exchange students, from Germany, Japan, France, Switzerland, Brazil, etc. It was amazing when we were together because we saw how language, skin color and height did not matter. We are all the same. We discussed the difference between America and our home countries. I learned so much about so many other cultures and I am so proud that I was able to share so much information about China with so many people.

Being away from China for 10 months alone in a completely different country has taught me a lot of things. Being an exchange student requires suspending all judgments. It's part of the learning process to become aware of what one's culture is like.

When I sent my application to AFS, I realized that my perspective on life and on the world was going to change somehow. I've learned to become open-minded to new ideas. I am independent. I am grown up. My departure day is coming up fast. This year in America is almost over. June will be a month full of tears for me because I have learned so much that I could have never learned from a textbook. I have a ton of memories and stories to share with my family and friends in China. I believe I have learned more than what a million textbooks could ever tell me. I have learned independence, confidence, compassion, open-mindedness, and world peace. Being an exchange student is a marvelous opportunity.

Zeyu Zhao spent the year attending City Honors.

Do you want to be an exchange student or be a host family? Visit www.afs.org.

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