First-time fairgoers Skaipent Yu, 20, and Chen Jie, 19, made sure to hit all the highlights at Cal Expo: ogling baby animals, riding the flying swings and, of course, indulging in culinary oddities like the bacon-wrapped turkey leg.
The biggest fair attraction for Yu and Chen, however, was something most other attendees took for granted: the chance to rub shoulders with native Californians. The students at Donghua University in Shanghai, China, along with 12 other Chinese children and teens, traveled more than 6,000 miles to become the first international youth delegation at the California State Fair. In addition to taking in the fair’s offerings over its first weekend, the students performed a traditional Chinese dance, demonstrated Chinese tea preparation and calligraphy, and read children’s stories.
“We want to show Chinese culture to the U.S.,” Chen said. “We want to show the beauty of China. And we want to travel. The U.S. is beautiful, too.”
Benhui Dai, a broker at Multi-Culture Exchange, a Los Angeles-based business consulting firm that works with Chinese clients, said the U.S. trip was the first his company had organized. The delegation comprised four 8- and 9-year-olds and 10 teens in high school or college.
The younger students, accompanied by parents and teachers, are all classmates at an after-school program called Xu Min Creative Arts School, where they take painting and English classes. The older students are participants in a youth leadership program for Shanghai’s top-performing teens.
While the younger kids were ending their U.S. trip at the fair after 10 days touring Washington, D.C., and New York City, the older students were beginning a California expedition that will include a tour of Stanford University, a visit to Google’s headquarters and sightseeing in Los Angeles.
Given that the vast majority of San Franciscans don’t feel the need to trek to Sacramento for the fair, why did a group of Chinese students decide to spend three days there? For students of American culture, Dai said, the California State Fair is a fantastic learning opportunity.
“It’s a great way for young children to get access to local communities,” Dai said. “The fair has been around for 160 years. Here, they have a big population base to interact with, engage with.”
On Saturday afternoon at the Dream Big exhibit, intercultural engagement took the form of an exuberant performance of American children’s songs. At the story time area, the four Chinese children acted out a traditional fairytale and then sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “I Don’t Want to Be a Chicken,” with occasional assistance from American toddlers.
Earlier in the day, they had visited the candy exhibit called “Sweet: California’s Tasty Journey,” otherwise known as “the candy house.” All agreed it was the best thing they had seen at the fair.
“It was so fun,” said Elle Li, 8.
“I love America,” declared Neil Yang, 9.
Across the fairgrounds, the older students (most of whom are conversationally fluent in English) poured tea and shared Chinese handicrafts with visitors in the “Do It Yourself” kitchen demonstration counter. From a cohort of 100 students in their program in Shanghai, 10 were selected to come to the U.S. because they have skills in dance, music or art, said their chaperone, Yang Ruibing, 23.
In addition to offering tea, the students sought to literalize Sino-American cultural exchange by offering specially printed paper and silk bags to fairgoers who would give them something besides money in return. Chen said one man took the socks off his infant son’s feet. The students rewarded him with a small handbag.
While the students were mostly comfortable with English, other aspects of American culture were less accessible. Yang said she was surprised at how difficult it was to get around without a car; cities in China generally have extensive public transportation networks.
Chen and Yu cited the food as particularly different from what they’re accustomed to back home. They sampled hamburgers and hot dogs but were most impressed by the turkey legs.
“It’s big,” Chen said of the meat novelty item. She reconsidered. “It’s very big.”
They also observed another American phenomenon, perhaps not unrelated to the burgers and turkey legs they admired.
“More people are very fat,” Chen said.
Melanie and Rick Fameli of Citrus Heights said they were glad to see a youth delegation from China at the fair, but wondered what kind of impression of the United States the students were getting.
“This goes on in every small town in America, so I guess it’s kind of a snapshot,” Melanie Fameli mused. “But it’s a weird snapshot.”