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Chinese students experience school, Coronado-style

A second shadow followed RJ Khalaf last week.

Most of the time, it was just as quiet as the first, trailing Khalaf’s footsteps and sitting next to the Coronado High School senior everywhere he went on the Henderson campus.

The shadow had a name, Ren Shilin. A high schooler like Khalaf, the student from China was visiting the United States for the first time. Another 31 students from Shilin’s Beijing-area school shadowed Coronado students every day last week, joining them for activities and sports, marking what district officials gather is the first instance of the Clark County School District hosting students from the communist country.

It wasn’t so much orchestrated as serendipitously strung together.

A Chinese immigrant living in Las Vegas told a district official about a Chinese school whose leaders wanted to have students see an American school. After some work, the connection was made with the Chinese school, which took care of the visas and all of the students’ expenses from travel to lodging and meals.

Coronado Principal Mike Piccininni, who previously ran the district’s Global Community High School for immigrants, was open to the idea. But there was one surprise when the Chinese students arrived.

None of them knew more than a handful of English words and were unable to put together a sentence. Just a “yes,” here and a “thank you,” there. But, like their American counterparts, the Chinese teens have smartphones. Google Translator became the bridge between English and Mandarin Chinese, Khalaf said on his way to trigonometry class Thursday morning. He and his Chinese guest sat at two desks in the back of the room. Khalaf put his notebook on the desk and so did Shilin as they listened to the teacher lecture and run through trigonometric equations.

“Both he and I are lost in this class,” said Khalaf, Coronado’s student body president, who has pieced together that school is much different in China. Thursday was a prime example as students dressed for Halloween, costuming themselves as everything from ballerinas to Spock from “Star Trek.”

“They’re thrown off, but intrigued,” said Khalaf, looking at Shilin, who was curious about everything around him.

American students have more control over their education and more freedom, Khalaf said. Khalaf, and the other student council members partnered with Chinese students, even have a role in running the school, which is a shock to the visitors, the principal noted.

“Their students are very conservative compared to ours, almost to the point of being a nervous wreck,” said the principal, remembering the first day. “They fell into a military-like formation. You can see the difference in expectations. Here, students thrive on being individuals.”

Dallin Bryan, Coronado student body treasurer, asked his Chinese partner, nicknamed Nick, about the differences between their schools. Nick, usually outgoing, didn’t type back on his phone but simply said, “No.”

When Khalaf asked Shilin about what he likes most here, he said, “I like the sky.” He elaborated by explaining that it’s clearer here.

“It’s something we take for granted,” Khalaf said. “Something we just expect.”

The experience has been quite a lesson for the students separated from their homeland by 6,000 miles, Principal Piccininni said.

“From a cultural standpoint, it couldn’t be more different,” he said.

But the students soon found they share much, even if they are only able to type it to each other.

Shilin has a girlfriend, often texting her. He asked Khalaf if he has one too.

“All the girls here tell us we have to be more like the Chinese boys,” Khalaf said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that one.”

The Chinese school has invited Coronado to send students to visit. Piccininni is considering it, but said it’s dependent on whether the students stay in touch.

Shilin and Khalaf have already made plans to do so.

“I think we’re friends,” said Khalaf, pulling the phone from his front pocket. He pecked at the screen a few times and showed it to Shilin.

“Yes,” said Shilin with a single nod and a smile.

“We’re friends,” Khalaf said, and shared in the smile.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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