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Macclenny couple hosts Chinese teen for 10 months

"Sylvia" (center) with host parents Ryan and Sandi Brannan.Qianyu Huang, or Syliva as she’s known to her host family, is a 17-year-old foreign exchange student from China living with a north Macclenny couple and their two poodles.

Sylvia started attending Baker County High School shortly after arriving in the country last August. She enjoys her history, art, culinary and agriculture classes and takes calculus online at home because it’s not offered at BCHS.

“[School here] is different,” Sylvia said during a recent interview with The Press. “I pick my schedule. In Chinese school, the schools pick the schedule for you. You have subjects you must learn, so it’s different.”

And the differences don’t end there.

Her native city — Wenzhou — in southern China is home to eight million people, big buildings, many streets and the hustle and bustle of commerce. NPR called it China’s “Capital of Capitalism” and reported that Wenzhou manufactures 70 percent of the world’s cigarette lighters and 60 percent of its buttons.

“Our city is different from Macclenny because Macclenny is more like a countryside,” said Sylvia, who was joined for the interview with her host parents, Sandi and Ryan Brannan. “In my city we have tall buildings and the traffic is terrible, and we have a lot of people.”

She arrived in Jacksonville late in the evening following a layover in New York City. So the next morning, after the sun came out, she was enthralled by what she saw here — trees everywhere, birds chirping and squirrels scurrying.

Sylvia described China’s environment in bleaker terms, saying the country is still developing and has a lot of pollution problems. “I really like the environment here,” she said.

The biggest challenge for Sylvia has been adjusting her diet to the foods here.

A self-described picky eater, Sylvia has been eating the same ham and lettuce sandwich for lunch for the last five months. She loves spaghetti, brownies, tiramisu, pork chops, steak and chicken and dumplings. She’s not so wild about cheese, mayonnaise, fried food or American salad dressings.

Otherwise Sylvia, the only daughter of a lawyer and school teacher, has settled in well here.

Exchanging cultures

At first it was hard for her to communicate with other students at the high school. She couldn’t understand what they were saying and they couldn’t ignore her obvious accent.

But overtime her English improved and the outgoing teen made many friends at BCHS while learning about American culture and exposing other students to Chinese culture.

She won first place and $25 in the table-setting competition at the county fair with hand-painted flower Sylvia with her winning table-setting entry at the fair.plates and a gold fish centerpiece. She’s also experienced American Christmas and Thanksgiving traditions with the Brannans and her classmates.

Sylvia is the couple’s third foreign exchange student since 2008. The first two girls hailed from Venezuela and Norway.

“With the other students we had, they were very similar to us, so there wasn’t any drastic changes,” said Mrs. Brannan, a juvenile justice probation officer.

“But with [Sylvia] there were quite a few changes,” she said. “The food I didn’t expect that to be so different and challenging to figure out what she would eat. Customs — she’s not used to hugging — so that was something we gave her a heads up on; that we hug here and strangers will hug you and that’s okay.”

For the full story, see this week’s print edition or subscribe to the e-edition here. One month subscriptions are $5, but they automatically renew unless you cancel them via PayPal.

For more information about hosting an exchange student, contact Mr. Brannan brannanryan@yahoo.com.

See video of the interview here.

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