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Han Zhuang

Han Zhuang discovered nachos and got almost straight As as an exchange student at R.A. Long High School in Longview.

Han Zhuang found less homework than in his native China — but more sports — when he arrived at R.A. Long High School last fall. He got used to walking rather than taking the subway and even learned to bake cookies.

Han, 16, recently finished his junior year at R.A. Long High School. He's traveling back to Shanghai on Saturday.

He lived with the family of John and Mary Jane Melink through the AFS exchange program. Their 16-year-old daughter, JoLee, was adopted from China.

Han was placed with the Melinks only a few weeks before he started at RAL last fall. "They just told me it's in Washington," he said. "At first I thought it was in Washington, D.C."

Before coming to the U.S., the teen lived all his life in Shanghai, a booming international city with an estimated population of 23 million inhabitants, the most populated city in the world.

"It developed super fast with lots of tall buildings," said Han, who lives in 24-story apartment building there.

Han's father is a police officer and his mother teaches Chinese at an international school. Because of China's one-child policy to limit population growth, Han has no siblings.

Visitors to China sometimes marvel at the special overpasses and parking lots for bicycles. Han, however, didn't learn how to ride a bike until he got here. "My school is always across the street from my house" in Shanghai, he explained.

Chinese students start learning English in the first grade, so Han had a good grasp of the language when he arrived.

He found "much less" homework here than in China, where competition is fierce to get into better-ranked high schools and then universities.

The Chinese school system is segmented based on performance.

"The better kids to go better schools," said Han, who attended one of the top three ranked high schools in Shanghai. He likes the system. "Students are about the same knowledge level," he said. "You can learn more."

John Melink said Han "was so used to a Chinese regimen, he stayed in his room studying. He stayed up late."

At R.A. Long, Han got all A's except in AP biology, where the Melinks said the language was a challenge.

"We don't do a lot of sports" in China, Han said. At R.A. Long, "they are much much better in sports than we are." Han did play tennis here and got the team's most improved award.

He watched a Lumberjack football game and found it boring. "They stopped too many times," he commented.

Han is eager to continue his education in this country. "I want to go to college here," he said. "That's why I came to America for high school."

Han has applied to community colleges in the Seattle area, though he would first have to be granted a different kind of visa before he could return to the United States.

To apply for a U.S. visa, Chinese people have to make an appointment to visit the consulate, he said. "You have to line up for five hours. If you're lucky, you get in."

During his year here, Han learned about American customs — and misconceptions about his own.

When he arrived, students would ask, "Do you eat dog?"

The answer was no.

"We don't eat cat," either, he said. "In the northern part of China, they eat dog." Snake meat is a special treat in China, however. "That's when they have wedding."

Han said his favorite new food here was the all-American nachos. "I don't really like hamburgers," he said. "I don't like fast food."

He is also pleased that "I learned a lot of baking stuff. I learned to bake cookies."

Han said he thought life in America might be dangerous, considering this country's more liberal policies on owning weapons. In China, "nowhere can you buy guns and no carry knives."

"Actually it's kind of safe here — it's safe in Longview."

Another surprise was that Han found clothing cheaper here than in China, even if many of our garments are made there. He planned to stock up on shirts before he returned home.

Last fall, the Melinks asked Han about the driving and voting ages in China.

Han, whose parents have a car, can learn to drive when he's 18. He pointed out that traffic is much worse in China than here.

As for the second question, Han responded, "We don't vote."

He doesn't object to a political system that is not governed by free elections. "We don't want to change it. Life there is good. We don't have to expect anything else."

As for this country's presidential race, Han said "my family cheered" when President Obama was elected because he's the first black president.

In addition to the easy homework and tasty nachos, Han will tell his friends and family another indelible fact about life in Longview.

"It rains a lot."

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