Silver Lake Conference Center hosted a group of 31 college students from China during week 5 of the summer season. The experience of two convening cultures had an impact on both the Chinese students and the American campers and staff.
The students were mostly undergraduate students at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Their trip to Silver Lake was part of a longer stay in the U.S. visiting various universities and landmarks in order to give the students an experience of American daily life and to help them examine the similarities and differences between the education systems of the two nations.
Jenn Kronholm Clark, Program Director for Silver Lake, said the visit originated with a call from Thomas Peng, a liaison for the Chinese students based in New Haven. Peng contacted the conference center in the spring with the hope of having the students spend a week at camp. He had three goals for the group: speak and hear American English, make new friends, and experience a loving, Christian community.
With the summer conferences already scheduled, Kronholm Clark and the camp staff needed to act quickly to find a dean who could coordinate the impromptu conference, called New Horizons, and find space to house the students. She recruited Nancy True, an experienced dean and member of the Trinitarian Congregational Church UCC in Massachusetts, and Sara Capalbo, a long-time counselor and dean . True and Capalbo understood the challenges of bringing in a group of students from a unfamiliar culture and having the possibility of language barriers between the campers and the volunteers and staff. They prepared for the week by treating it like a "Silver Lake Sampler" giving the Chinese campers a taste of everything the camp could offer.
Despite all the preparations, the first night ended with tension among the Chinese campers. Many of the students had never stayed in a rural environment before. They were unaccustomed to sleeping in cabins and were concerned about not having access to WiFi or communications with family back in China. Some cultural misunderstandings furthered the issue as True tried to run an activity that required the students to remove their shoes while on the paved road near the cabins. Many of the Chinese students refused. Though the students had very good English skills, the American volunteers and staff did not understand any Chinese and found it difficult to fully explain the purpose of what they were trying to do. The evening ended with the Chinese students calling their liaison Peng and asking to be picked up and returned to Yale where they had spent the previous week. True and Peng explained that any solutions would have to wait until the morning.
On Monday morning, things began to look different. True says she believe the experience turned a corner when the group began playing a game. During a game of wax museum with New Horizons counselor Haley Hudler, summer staffer Erica Maclean approached the group. Hudler shouted for Maclean to "strike a pose." Without pause, Maclean rolled through the dirt and jumped up in a superhero pose. The sheer act of silliness broke through some barrier, said True.
"It opened them up," she said, "and told them 'we're going to be silly here and it's totally fine'."
The rest of the week demonstrated the transformational power of the Silver Lake community. The New Horizons campers engaged in all sorts of camp activities, many of them first-time experiences for these students. They had never been to a campfire before, had never swam in a lake. They were amazed to see the stars at night (something not possible in the large cities of China). Most of the students shared that the high ropes course was their favorite activity, including one student who arrived on crutches due to a previous injury and was able to climb due the course's accessibility.
The New Horizons campers brought new experiences to the camp as well. Some of the students taught others a string game similar to "cat's cradle." They also held parasols to ward off the sun, a habit adopted by some campers who began shading the sun with umbrellas. Debby Kirk, co-dean for River of Dreams during week 5, shared another experience.
“The Chinese students were eager to learn ‘American’ English’ and youth from our conference had lots of conversations with them. As we prepared our worship music, our conferees had the idea to include Chinese translation for one of the songs, so they asked for help writing out the characters and the phonetic pronunciation,” said Kirk.
The New Horizons conference was scheduled to end on Friday. On Thursday night, a group of the Chinese campers gave a presentation in the amphitheater for the entire camp. They sang some songs, with lyrics written out in both Chinese and English, and performed a dance. And one young man addressed the community as a spokesperson for the rest of the students.
They had all fallen in love with Silver Lake, he shared. He then explained that in China, when someone says something very important, they repeat the statement three times. On behalf of the other New Horizons campers, he declared, "I love you Silver Lake. I love you Silver Lake. I love you Silver Lake."
As they boarded a bus on Friday morning, the New Horizons campers exchanged contact information with new friends they had made with camp staffers. What had started with a cultural shock and desire to end the experience immediately, ended with hugs, laughter, and even tears of sadness because they no longer wanted to leave.
"We had no idea how much of an impact these young people from halfway around the world would have on our community," said Kronholm Clark after the week finished. "I like to think that they are taking a little piece of Silver Lake back home to China with them, as well."