Peng Kangzhou, also known as Daniel, moved to Madison with his daughter in April. They come from Chongqing, China, a city with around 20 million inhabitants encompassing over one thousand towns and smaller townships. Viola Yang, now a VHE first grader in McGuire’s class, arrived with him to join the full year experience. His wife Angela “commutes” between Chongqing and Madison. Here, they live with the Veto family, who welcomed them at the airport and since then is sharing their year-long life in the US.
They are a Chinese family with a strong connection to English, which Daniel started learning in middle school to later become an English teacher. He also learned Russian and Japanese. He is now a visiting professor at UW–Madison conducting research on educational assessment while sharing with his family and neighbors the excitement of a first year abroad.
Viola is learning English quickly, and she is making friends even more quickly. She is active and open to new experiences. She likes music, and dancing, and drawing, and – of course – to be part of the hedgehog community.
Can you tell us about the emotions of your first days in Madison?
I was very excited about the environment. I saw the last days of snow and almost immediately enjoyed the beautiful parks with green grass. I took a walk along the clean and quiet neighborhood. I was delighted about the food in the market: organic products or even a dark red apple with an affordable price. I never worried about Viola and schooling in Madison. And she proved me right. She got quickly used to Van Hise and is now thrilled with the afterschool activities every week. But, we left family and friends in China and, when we arrived, she felt homesick for several days.
And what about now, do you feel at home in Madison?
Yes, Madison is home now. The more I explore the city, the more captivated I get. For weeks, I rode my bike around the city, from Middleton to West Towne and to the Arboretum. I wanted to see it all. Now, I prefer to run and walk for about an hour with Viola and my wife. I’m not really missing anything. But, of course, I do care for my parents, my colleagues, my friends and my students in China. I call them regularly and I keep in touch through social networks and e-mail.
Why did you come to the US?
Professional development is what brings me to the city. But, experiencing a new and authentic culture was something I always wanted to do. I have been exposed to English culture since I was 12 years old and teaching English as a foreign language for 16 years, but I never got a chance to study or work abroad. In 2006, I got PhD offer in King’s College, London University. Tuition was expensive though, and I had to reject it. That’s why I’m so grateful to my university for giving me the opportunity to experience the authenticity of American society.
Once settled here, does the US fit your expectations?
Oh, the US is much better than I expected! People are friendlier and care more about each other than I ever thought. Once, when I got lost in the street, several people came over to help me very friendly. We met some locals in the Arboretum and they drove us home and invited us for dinner. And I could tell many other stories. The amount of readers also surprised us. They love reading here! People read in the bus, with a drink in a bar, and regularly with their family. And what about the free little libraries all around the city?! They really impressed me. And still another thing, Madisonians love exercising. The city is bike-friendly and, everyday, I see people running, walking and riding their bikes along trails.
Has the experience already left a “footprint” in your family?
No doubt! I read books to my daughter everyday. I even enjoy talking to people that I have just met in the street, in a garage sale or at the farmer’s market. And, if there is time, we also run in the neighborhood. The more we explore, the more we learn, and the more we like it!
How do you keep your language and your culture alive?
We speak Chinese at home. Occasionally, I may also speak in English to my daughter to help her progressing with the language. And we celebrate our holidays with the Veto family, and teachers and friends here. In the same way that I like to learn about American culture, we also like to invite Americans to join us in celebrating our traditions. I think this enriches the experience for all of us. We talk about our traditions and exchange views with local people. We get to know each other better.
Do you also join US traditions?
We have not joined many yet, but just because we missed them. We did not go to downtown for the Independence Day, but we celebrated Labor’s Day with some Chinese friends. And we will celebrate Thanksgiving with the American family with whom we live now.
If you had to leave the US now and go back to your country, what would you miss?
I will miss the beautiful parks and streets, the lake and the birds, the peaceful environment. And the food too: pizza, organic milk, fruit. And we will miss the openness of people and the little library in our great neighborhood.
Tell us about Viola. Does she like the school? Does she have friends with different nationalities?
Viola likes the school. For one thing, she likes lunch. For another, I guess there is no homework. She is struggling a bit with English and needs more time to pickup and understand her teacher in class. But she has plenty of new friends, most of them American and a couple of Chinese, and a Spanish-speaking boy too!
What do you think about the VHE multicultural community?
As far as I know, there are English native speakers, but plenty of English language learners too. Chinese- and Spanish-speaking might be the majority of those. The ESL teachers, like Ms. Chia-Wen, are a great support for English language learners. As for educational and personal growth, I think the culture and language of ELLs should be cherished in schooling. I know there will be international festivals every year to celebrate such multiculturalism. But, the culture of ELL students–their customs, habits, festivals and holidays, and personal values – should also be introduced in class when dealing with language learning and other subjects.
Do you feel or you think you can feel (if stay long enough) somehow American?
This is a tough one! I wish I could live in this city forever. But it’s hard for an adult to feel American because I came with my own beliefs and view of the world. But the exposure to English and the American culture has had and impact on me. I guess I can say that, in some aspects, I do behave more like an American.
And some quick questions to end:
Tell us about something you really like from American or Wisconsin culture? The Wisconsin Idea
And something that still surprises you from them? The amount of overweight people.
Something that surprises Americans about you or your culture? The size of our cities. Our city is a big one, with nearly 30 million inhabitants if you include urban and rural areas.
And something Americans like from you or your culture? Food! Spicy food. Hotpot.
Your preferred American // Chinese food? Pizza // Double-cooked pork with chili bean sauce
Your favorite place in the US // in China? The Arboretum // Leshan, literally means happy mountain, my hometown
An English // Chinese book you love? Red Badge of Courage // The Book of Change
A person you would like to meet in the US // China? President Obama // President Xi
An American // Chinese song, or a singer/group, that you love? Right Here Waiting by Richard Marx // Huang hun (Dusk) by Steve Chou
An American // Chinese celebration you specially like? Thanksgiving // Spring Festival
An English // Chinese word that you like? Thank you! (xie xie in Chinese) //好 (hao): it means good. In our tradition, in a family if you have a daughter and son, then you are good enough. The left side of this word means daughter and the right side of this word means son.
Angela and Viola in a typical countryside landscape in rural areas of China. This land was once full of crops, but now you can only see wild grass and flowers, and some trees. The countryside around Madison is so beautiful, but also full of farms and crops.
This is a pic of my family during the celebration of our Spring Festival. My father is the one drinking spirits and my brother is holding the cup. As you can see, we celebrate Spring with a lot food and drinks and talks. Oh! And no knife and forks in Chinese traditions! The food is served with chopsticks and bowl.
Viola’s school in China is huge and surrounded by high building. The grass in this picture is not real grass. We enjoy so much the smell of real grass and flowers around Van Hise!
And you will recognize this image, right? The Wisconsin Idea. I like it so much! It shows how a university serves the community.
Top Photo: This is one of my favorite places in Madison, the Arboretum. My wife and I enjoyed a wonderful Sunday afternoon with Marieli Rowe, the editor of the Journal of Media Literacy.