With nearly a month to go before Halloween, the scene that unfolded on Crooked Mile Road last month seemed anything but ordinary.
A swarm of costumed teenagers ran from one house to the next, screaming "trick-or-treat!" at the top of their lungs, fueled by pure excitement -- and partly sugar. However, two things were amiss: the teenagers' Halloween celebration was extremely early, and the adolescents involved were too old to participate in the childhood pastime.
But this wasn't a high school prank. Halloween came early this year -- at least for the Chinese exchange students visiting Darien last month.
Darien High School senior Sarah Colon and her family hosted a trick-or-treat party for the exchange students, just one of the many events planned during their visit. Colon, along with 11 other DHS students, will travel to Qingdao this spring as part of the China Exchange program, a class that has been offered at DHS since 2001.
For the past 11 years, DHS has participated in the Chinese Exchange program with schools in both Qingdao and Shanghai -- two major cities in China. Shanghai No. 3 School has participated with DHS in the program since its inception -- a relationship that was set up through the State Department when DHS received a federal grant for the program. Qingdao No. 58 School was added in 2006 by the Connecticut Department of Education. Since 2006 the two Chinese schools have alternated each year in sending delegates to live with host families in Darien.
The history behind the addition of Qingdao No. 58 School to the program began in 1986, when Connecticut and Shandong, the province in China where Qingdao is located, made an effort to promote cultural exchange of education through students and teachers by establishing 100 Sister School partnerships in both Connecticut and Shandong.
This year, DHS students and their families hosted students and educators from Qingdao No. 58 School. Twelve students, ages 15 through 17, and three teachers from the school spent the first two weeks in October with their Darien host families.
Extreme jet lag was no match for the Chinese exchange students, who were busy throughout their entire visit. Their activities included sitting in on classes at DHS, visiting Middlesex Middle School, touring Yale University, and spending a day in New York City.
Colon's family, along with hosting one of the Chinese delegates, also went to great lengths in planning the Halloween-themed event in their cul-de-sac. Neighboring families agreed to hand out candy to the eager Chinese students, who were experiencing the joys of dressing up and going from house to house in search of sugary treats for the first time in their lives.
"It was so much fun," Sun Qinyuan (or Abby, the name she went by while in the United States), said after the party. "I loved dressing up and getting into costume. I wish China had a holiday like that!"
Qinyuan stayed with DHS sophomore Katie Mulliken and her family while in Darien.
"Hosting a student made me realize how different our two cultures really are," Mulliken said.
Qinyuan and Mulliken both agreed that DHS boldly contrasts with its Chinese counterpart.
"For instance, I found out that their school day begins at seven in the morning and their last class ends at 5:30," Mulliken said. "After that, they do homework and study until 10:30 and then go to bed. Their school is strictly academically focused, while DHS also considers art and sports to be very important."
DHS sophomore Riley Scott loved having the Chinese exchange students visit Darien and looks forward to learning more about China's culture when she visits this spring.
"The experience was really enriching and eye-opening," Scott said. "It allowed me to fully realize the huge difference between the two cultures. It was great because as two completely different cultures we still managed to bond so well."
Scott's description of the experience embodies what the China Exchange program strives to achieve.
"When we first got the grant for the program in 2001, the whole purpose of the program was to get people in different communities connected," DHS history department head Jean Shortliffe said. "The State Department calls it `kitchen table diplomacy.' It's a community program for both the high school and the Darien community. Because of the host families, it makes it an opportunity for not just students, but families as well."
Shortliffe has taught the China Exchange class from the beginning, along with DHS English teachers Lynda Sorenson and Anne Armiger. This year, DHS special education teacher Kristen Backus joined as a faculty coordinator after Sorenson retired from her role in the program.
Seeing DHS and Chinese exchange students talk, laugh and even trick-or-treat together demonstrates the principal role the program plays in not only the DHS community, but the Darien community as well. Offering both students and teachers the opportunity to gain a new perspective, it bridges the gap between two completely different cultures.
Mac McDonough is a freelance writer