A home away from home
● By J. Chambless
Emlyn and Chris Frangiosa, with Siyao Chen.
By John Chambless
a recent warm day, with a gentle breeze stirring the windchimes on
the patio, Siyao Chen was right at home. Her real home is in Fuzhou,
in southeast China, a 14-hour flight away, but for the past three
years, she has been welcomed into the West Chester home of Emlyn and
Chris Frangiosa as an integral part of the family.
At 17, she is still soft-spoken, but far from the anxious 14-year-old who first heard about a program that would send her to America for an education. New Oasis International Education, based in Herndon, Va., brings promising students from China – where education is rigid, with few extracurricular activities – to a place where teens can branch out and pursue their passions, with the goal of securing a good college placement, and ultimately a career.
Siyao, who also goes by Joanna for those who stumble over the pronunciation of her name, attending three years of classes at Villa Maria Academy in Malvern has opened her eyes to a world of possibilities. As part of the New Oasis international education program, students arrive in America each August, and leave at the end of the academic year. There are breaks for Christmas and Easter, when students may return to their families in China, but they can also opt to stay with their host parents during those times. This summer, Siyao is excited about attending an advanced math class at Brown University, where she will get a taste of college life by living in a dorm with other teens through July 28. She enters her senior year at Villa Maria in the fall. Saying goodbye at graduation next year, as her host mother, Emlyn, said with a sigh, “is going to be tough.”
In China, Siyao said, “there are three years of middle school, three years of high school and three years of college,” but coming to America has opened doors to Drama Club, badminton lessons, Mandarin Club, the student orchestra (where she plays piano and percussion), as well as karate lessons and volunteering for community organizations. She is one of 16 Chinese students currently at Villa Maria.
Before becoming part of New Oasis, Siyao thought of Americans as “enthusiastic,” she said with a grin. “When we learned English, all of our textbooks had conversations where they just talked … happily, I guess?”
Emlyn laughed, adding, “I'm naturally a very excited person, so I am the exclamation point that she read about before coming here.” Over the past three years, Siyao can answer friends and family in China who ask what America is like by telling them, “There's a lot of diversity, a lot of different cultures and people.”
That range has been brought into focus in the past year, as the political landscape has shifted in America, and the divisions between parties have been drawn ever sharper. That kind of debate – and hostility – has been a new experience for Siyao. “In China, we don't get to vote,” she said. “We don't get a lot of information about what's going on. I wasn't old enough to know about politics when I first left China.” Those who might want to voice dissent in China, she said, after some thought, “can write letters, I guess.”
There is no Facebook in China, but WeChat – a multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment platform – fulfills several functions, allowing video chat. There is a selection of TV channels in China, Siyao said, “But every day when it's 7 p.m., most channels will show the official news. Everyone gets the same information.” That news is tightly controlled by the government.
Religion in China is not supressed, but most people there are raised without a faith background. Siyao said, “I personally don't have a religion. I didn't have a lot of knowledge about it. But coming to Villa Maria has opened my mind.”
Villa Maria has theology classes as part of its curriculum, and Siyao has enthusiatically embraced learning about Bible history and aspects of faith. Emlyn, who is Roman Catholic, said Siyao's work in her theology classes is so thorough it's intimidating.
“She probably knows more about Catholicism than I do,” Emlyn said, laughing. And the lessons the teen is learning have paid off. “The students had a work program where they go to work with former prison inmates who are learning how to go back into society. I had some apprehension about that, but Siyao said, 'You know, the church would tell you that everybody has a chance to reform.' And I thought, 'OK, you're right, point taken.'”
Siyao has experienced as much of America as Emlyn and her husband could manage, although as her workload has increased, long trips have been largely pushed aside. Among Siyao's favorite trips was one to Amelia Island in Florida, where the Frangiosas have family. The quiet of the island, she said, was a welcome experience, although she has been to major cities as well. “Cities are more for shopping,” she said thoughtfully. “I like the island more for relaxing.”
Her favorite experiences here have included riding a horse in Florida, and taking part in indoor skydiving at an iFLY location. But her immersion in American culture has also included a spate of movies from the late 1980s and 1990s that she has never seen before – “The Princess Bride,” “Ghostbusters,” and the adventures of Indiana Jones. And she has become an ace at figuring out mysteries before either of her host parents. “She always guesses who did it, and gets it right,” Emlyn said.
Siyao has developed a taste for most Italian foods, she said, although “I still don't like bacon that much.” Much of what America considers Chinese food is also nothing like the food at home, she said. The family has found one restaurant with reliably authentic Chinese cuisine, and Emlyn has learned to prepare Siyao's favorite native dishes at home, using ingredients purchased at a local Asian grocery store.
Emlyn said she and her husband have embraced Siyao because “when I was young, my parents hosted people from Japan, Ireland and Sweden. And I teach English as a second language. For all of those reasons, we were very comfortable with the idea of having someone come and live with us. We don't have children, but we have plenty of love to give.”
The couple discovered New Oasis after investigating several other programs. “We were excited to see that New Oasis has their act together,” she said. “When you take somebody into your home, you want to know that you can connect with the parents and that there's support here. We know we can reach out to the organization at any point for help. Siyao can just be a student and a regular kid.”
After an application, an interview, reference checks, a background check and a home visit, the Frangiosas got three photos of Siyao and her family, a write-up about her, and an email contact. “We started emailing, I guess, in spring of 2015,” Emlyn said. “We spoke through that summer, then did a WeChat with my husband, me, Siyao and her mother -- and her cousin, who popped in for a minute,” she added, laughing.
“I was really nervous,” Siyao admitted about that first introduction, which came through a choppy video connection. “There was a delay, and I had to speak English, and I hadn't done it a lot at that point.”
“We've learned a few unimportant words, like we can say hello and, what, tooth?” Emlyn asked Siyao, who laughed. “Our Chinese has not progressed. But as far as Siyao goes, she has far exceeded any expectations that we had. When she first came, we expected she would be a typical teenager and she was going to have a rough transition, coming into a different country. But she's the world's most fluid and easy person. She is so delightful. She's almost always on board with trying new things.”
Recently, the Frangiosas got word through New Oasis that they have been approved to host another Chinese teen, a seventh-grader, next year. “It will be nice for Siyao to have a buddy, and to be a mentor,” Emlyn said, adding, “My hope is that Siyao comes back for everything she can come back for. We love her.”
Jessica Logiurato, a program coordinator who works to place students with families through New Oasis, sat in on the interview with Siyao and Emlyn. The New Oasis organization places students from China with host families across the United States. Logiurato also provides comprehensive support for the host families and the students.
“Our founder and CEO, Sean Chen, was an international student himself,” Logiurato said. “He went through a homestay program, but he noticed there were a lot of gaps. He didn't have the support that New Oasis offers. He didn't have the same kind of nurturing homestay experience, he didn't have a local coordinator who lives in the same community as the students and their host families. He thought, 'When I get out of college, I'm going to start a new program that will encompass all of these pieces.' That's how New Oasis came about.”
Logiurato just marked one year with the organization, and is looking for host families for the coming year. She has four positions open for the international program at Villa Maria, along with families who might be called upon to act as respite hosts if necessary, she said.
For Siyao, New Oasis has literally been a life-changing experience. “My parents wanted me to be independent, to make decisions for myself,” she said. “I can pick if I want to stay in America or go back to China. At first, they wanted me to stay here, but then they kind of let me choose. We'll see. I will meet people in college and get new opportunities, so my mind might change.”
Anyone interested in hosting, or finding out more information, can visit www.newoasisedu.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.