Westport: Low Fences, Communal Spirit, Personal Pizzas

On Thursday night 9 teenagers left Westport, for a plane back to Singapore. They were different people than when they’d arrived, just 2 weeks earlier.

The group — part of the 2nd annual group to visit from the elite Hwa Chong Institute — lived with Staples students, attended classes, and visited New York City and Yale.

But — as is so often the case with programs like this — the little things meant the most.

The guests shared their impressions on a Facebook page called “Staples High Immersion 2014.” Among their observations:

In Singapore, students are “generally meek in front of their teachers.” Here, school relationships are very relaxed.  As a result, discussions are lively, resulting in “effective learning.” And without uniforms, Westport students “are free to express their personal identity.”

Staples’ electives were eye-opening. Radio, television, film-making, music, pottery, digital darkroom, drawing, painting, sculpturing, jewelry making, woodworking — plus the opportunity to choose another language, like French, Spanish or Mandarin — was intriguing.

Two Hwa Chong students enjoy Culinary class.

Two Hwa Chong students enjoy Culinary class.

But that was nothing compared to extracurricular activities. The Singapore teenagers were impressed that Inklings, the school newspaper, gives students the opportunity to write on topics that interest them, from fashion to anti-Semitism.

The visitors were wowed by Staples Players’ “Hello, Dolly!” — let’s hope they don’t think that every high school puts on shows like that — and were amazed too at the importance that Wrecker sports hold for many students.

“Such is a mark of an obviously holistic education,” one youngster wrote. “Academics, while important, do not rob students of their time to engage in something they want to do and develop.

“Crudely speaking,” he added, “Staples makes Singaporean schools look like factories.”

Staples High School principal John Dodig and world language department chair Maria Zachery welcome the Singapore students to Westport.

Staples High School principal John Dodig and world language department chair Maria Zachery welcome the Singapore students to Westport.

The strong, close bonds of families in Westport neighborhoods impressed the Singapore teens. One said that “communal spirit” was lacking in his country.

And, he added, Westport homes do not have “high fences or walls to form a barricade around their properties,” as he was used to. (Another was surprised that Americans don’t mind living near cemeteries. That would never happen back home.)

Life here, one boy said, is less hectic than in Singapore. His father works overseas; his mother gets home from work after he is asleep, and he has not had a home-cooked meal since he was 11. Both host parents here cook.

He called it “heartwarming” to see that Westport families spend “sufficient time to interact and understand each and every family member.” Singapore youngsters “crave” that, he said.

One of his classmates remarked on the ease with which “numerous visitors” dropped in at his host family’s house.

It doesn't get more Westport than a trip to Five Guys.

It doesn’t get more Westport than a trip to Five Guys.

A host family took their guest to a local restaurant. A pizza that would be a meal for 2 or 3 people back home was his alone. At a supermarket, the only Coke he could find was 4.5 liters. On field trips, he and his classmates could not finish all the food they were served.

One Facebook post called Westport “stunning.” The “serene and quiet” autumn setting was a sharp contrast to “noisy and high energy” Singapore.

New York, meanwhile, seemed “straight out of a movie.” It had a “slight fairy-tale feel to it” — despite the “innumerable homeless people.”

“I am indeed glad I was honoured with the opportunity to come here,” a student wrote. “I feel accomplished and less ignorant” for having experienced Western culture.

One of the Singapore guests loved this serene scene near his host family's house.

One of the Singapore guests loved this serene scene near his host family’s house.

And, of course, nearly everyone asked the Singaporeans — “frantically,” one said — if they are allowed to chew gum.

“That is one thing we don’t really regard as something big, but apparently in other countries it appears really strange,” he noted.

Which is why all of us should travel. And when we do, we should wander out of our comfort zones. There are many lessons to be learned. As our Singapore guests have shown us, not all take place in school.

7 responses to “Westport: Low Fences, Communal Spirit, Personal Pizzas

  1. To see our own lives through the eyes of others, to realize how rich and gorgeous our Westport world is (despite all our daily gripes and grievances) – could there be a better message for Thanksgiving?

  2. We had the pleasure of hosting a student last year. It was one of the most amazing experiences we have had as a family My two high school boys really did an amazing job giving our student a real taste of life in Westport. It made us appreciate how good we have it. We all learned a lot from the opportunity to be a host family.

  3. How beautifully put, Jessica and Patti…my thoughts exactly as I read this uplifting piece about us, seen through the eyes of others. We tend to focus only the bad, the awful aspects of our human condition, where in reality, we are indeed so very blessed.

    Thank you, Jessica, for pointing that out along with Dan, who again, has nailed it insofar as putting that lens atop our lives and allowing us to look at us from another view. And thank you, Patti and all exchange student host families, for opening your homes to offer a life-changeing experiences to young people around the world.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

    Susan F+

  4. Wow—that was one of the best columns ever!

    I read it out loud to my kids!

  5. Many of us who live in Fairfield County towns are, indeed, blessed. With good schools, enriching cultural, social and sports activities, etc. And I think many of us take these things for granted; I know I did for much of my life. So, I’m wondering what kinds of experiences these students would have had in a local inner city school/family? Perhaps not so different than back home in Singapore.

    Nice story, Dan.

  6. Armelle Daniels

    Great article, Dan. We had the honor of hosting not one but two of these wonderful boys. We miss them very much already, what an amazing experience.

  7. You all need to travel more. This article (and responses) makes all of Asia seem like a slum. Wake up.