Tag Archives: Chris Fray

Zachary Rybchin: From Russia, With Latvia

Not every 6th grader is ready to study Mandarin.

Zachary Rybchin was.

A new student at Bedford Middle School, already interested in the world around him, he took on the challenging of learning a difficult language.

At Staples High, Zachary fed his passions for history and international relations. He joined the Model UN, Debate, Mock Trial and Junior State clubs. He took Advanced Placement courses: European History with Carol Kaye, US History with Eric Mongirdis, Economics with Drew Coyne.

And he continued to study Mandarin.

His teacher, Chris Fray, also speaks Russian. He learned the language while working on a fishing trawler there.

Zachary Rybchin

During Zachary’s sophomore year, Fray told the class about a US State Department program. The National Security Language Initiative for Youth began in 2006, as a way to encourage teenagers to learn Arabic, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Mandarin, Persian, Russian and Turkish — languages critical to our security, The government covers all costs.

Zachary went through the rigorous application for the Russian program. He wrote essays, and sat for interviews. Finally, out of thousands of applicants, he was one of 400 accepted.

But COVID struck that spring. The summer program was scratched.

He applied again in 2021. Again he was accepted. Again, the pandemic forced its cancelation.

The third time was the charm — almost. Because of the invasion of Ukraine, the State Department did not send students to Russia.

Instead, they went to Latvia. The Baltic nation shook off decades of Russian rule in 1991. But many Russian speakers remain.

Zachary lived with two of them. They spoke no English. When he arrived, he spoke no Russian.

Zachary Rybchin with his host mother (and her cat) on his last night in Latvia.

It was not easy. But through intensive daily classes — including work with an individual university partner — Zachary and his 19 fellow participants learned.

They also learned about Latvian history and culture. They explored the beautiful city of Riga, and beyond (including a trip to “secret” Soviet-era bunkers).

It was a great, educational and important 7 weeks — one absolutely worth waiting 3 years for.

Zachary Rybchin (back row, center) and his group in the Latvian Parliament. They met and talked with an MP there.

Now how will he retain the language skills he’s learned?

Zachary is young for his grade. So instead of heading directly to college, he’s taking a gap year in Israel. There are more Russian speakers there than in the US, he notes.

Next year, he’ll begin classes at historic St. Andrews University in Scotland. He’ll continue his Russian studies there.

And then?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Zachary says. “There are so many career paths. Give me a few years. I’ll let you know.”


Zachary Rybchin this month, in Jaffa, Israel.


3 Lost Sisters

Having lived in Westport my whole life, I thought I knew everything about this town.

From the Bankside Farmers to the banks no one ever goes to; from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Marilyn Chambers, I’ve heard all the stories.

Except the fact that Westport has 3 sister cities.

It’s right there in Wikipedia, which never seldom lies: “Westport currently has three sister cities: Marigny, France; St. Petersburg, Russia; Yangzhou, China.”

If that’s true, we must be part of a very dysfunctional family. You know, the kind that never gets together– even for holidays, weddings and funerals.

Well, it is true. I typed “sister cities” into the town website. There it is again, under “Appointed Boards”:

The Westport Sister Cities Association is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving human ties and understanding through cultural, trade, and educational exchange with other communities throughout the world. The Association strives to enrich the lives of Westport and Fairfield County residents through participation in such exchanges.

Westport currently has three sister cities: Marigny, France; St. Petersburg, Russia; Yangzhou, People’s Republic of China.

So we not only have 3 sisters — we’ve got an entire Association dedicated to them.

Marigny - magnifique!

The Marigny connection makes sense. Right after D-Day Westporter Bob Loomis — a gun sergeant — ended up there, 25 miles from Utah Beach. A couple of weeks later another Westporter, heavy machine gunner Clay Chalfant, moved through Marigny with his company on their way to Belgium.

Woody Klein’s history of Westport notes that after the war Charlotte MacLear, head of the French department at Staples, sparked an campaign to “officially adopt Marigny” and help its recovery. Our town sent clothes, money and Christmas gifts, thanks to fundraising that included selling toys and buckets with designs painted by Westport artists.

In return, Marigny created the “Westport School Canteen,” and named the town’s largest square “Place Westport.”

In June 1994 — as part of the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy — Marigny invited 3 Westport middle school students and 2 Westport veterans to stay in the homes of residents. They visited shops named “Westport Pharmacy” and “Westport Gift Shop.” The 2 veterans were, of course,  Loomis and Chalfant

Zut alors!

St. Petersburg seems to have no connection to Westport. It is, however, the only one of our 3 sisters I’ve actually visited. I don’t recall any signs hanging near the Hermitage or Neva River saying “Здравствуйте, Westport” (thanks, Google Translate!).

Of course, I might have missed them. There was a lot of vodka involved.

St. Petersburg -- not too shabby.

Finally, Yangzhou. Of our 3 lost sisters, this was the one with the most potential. After all, the US is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of China, so we ought to embrace our relative with all the money.

Bingo! (Or, as we say via Google Translate, 宾果!)

Google offered several links. The 1st was a long-ago sister-city site on a Staples server. It hasn’t been updated since 2002, but it included information about exchange programs with students, and a trip to Yangzhou by long-ago social studies teacher Todd Parker. Though the messageboard, chatroom and guestbook were all defunct, clearly some sort of arrangement once existed.

Clicking the link to Yangzhou’s official site delivered this error message: “The URL. http://www.china-yz.com is categorized as ‘pornography.'”

Now we’re talking!

Yangzhou in the spring.

Another link brought up a long-ago journal entry from Chris Fray, the Staples Mandarin teacher. Traveling in China, he wrote:

I meet Joel and Arline Epstein, two Westporters who have recently moved from Long Island. They are on a four day visit to Yangzhou and want to meet me. Joel and Arline are active in the Westport Sister City Committee and have come to Yangzhou to scout out some potential activities for the Committee as part of a larger-scale visit to China….We spend most of the dinner discussing China and the potential of future exchanges between Westport and Yangzhou.

And in June 2005, WestportNow reported, then-First Selectwoman Diane G. Farrell visited Yangzhou to “commemorate” the 10th anniversary of the sister city relationship, and then renew it.

Since then, 这是她写道 (“that’s all she wrote”).

Chris Fray confirms that — after 9 years or so of teacher exchanges, and a few other connections involving photographers and businesspersons — our Yangzhou connection has petered out.

There’s no more information online about our sister-city relationship with Yangzhou — or St. Petersburg, or Marigny. And, Chris thinks, the sister city committee hasn’t met in several years.

Do you think it was something we said?

Shadow Puppets

A few months ago, Chris Fray saw a New York Times story about shadow puppets.

Chris — who teaches Chinese at Staples High School — has long been intrigued by the ancient craft.  It takes weeks to make one puppet; learning how to manipulate one so that it moves, slithers, acts, sings and plays musical instruments — all in shadows projected on a thin sheet — takes years.

Every year, Chris’ Chinese 2 Honors students watch “To Live” — a sweeping epic about life in China from the 1940s through the ’70s.  In it, a village chief advises the protagonist’s family to burn their shadow puppets — as happened in real life.  Mao deemed the traditional cultural elements “counter-revolutionary.”

Shadow puppets are intricately designed, and projected on a thin screen.

In March — before introducing the film — Chris showed the Times story to his students.  It described the travails of Cui Yongping and Wang Shuqin, a husband and wife who spent 50 years pursuing shadow puppets throughout China.

They amassed 130,000 of them, and opened a museum dedicated to the art.  But Chinese authorities were uninterested, and finally — worn down — Yongping and Shuqin decided to try to move to America.  With their puppets.

According to the Times, they hoped to join their son Cui Jun, “a New Yorker since 2000 and the owner of a Manhattan restaurant.”

That’s all the paper said about him.  There were no follow-up stories about whether the couple had emigrated.

Chris challenged his classes:  Find out what happened.  If Yongping and Shuqin were in the US, invite them to Staples — and ask them to perform.

Emily Troelstra rose to the challenge.  The puppeteers were indeed in New York — and Emily found a shadow puppet website they’d already established.

Chris and Yan Yan — the Chinese exchange teacher who has spent this year at Staples — called the couple.  Though Yongping’s health is not good — a stroke has slowed him down, and hampered his speech — they were eager to come to Westport.

Chris contacted the PTA Cultural Arts Committee to ask for funds.  He thought he’d have to spend time describing shadow puppets, and their value to the curriculum — but member Carla Schine-Dener knew all about them.  In fact, she said, she’d loved them ever since high school, when she saw a performance.

The committee is funding most of the event — set for today, in the Staples auditorium.  The rest of the funds come from Chris’ students themselves.  Directed by Yan Yan, they created traditional “lucky knots,” and sold them throughout school.

Yongping and Shuqin will perform.  They’ll answer questions from students.  Then they’ll invite them on stage, to play with the shadow puppets themselves.

And, hopefully, pass along a love for a millenniums-old art form that both Mao and the present Chinese government had no interest in preserving.