Chinese student learns, and teaches, valuable lessons at Seton Catholic

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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At first, “Gino” was somewhat lost, his arrival in Clark County a bit ragged.

The Seton Catholic High School foreign exchange student leaned heavily on a digital translator device until it gave out, while he coped with strange foods, classmates and culture. Fortunately, he had Skype to keep in touch with home.

But the Beijing resident, 17, returns to China this week having found solid bearings: with fond memories, new understanding of Western life and a Christian pendant around his neck.

He even got folks straightened out on his real name.

It’s been an adventure for three foreigners at Seton High during the school year just ended, first outsiders in the two-year history of the school in Vancouver’s Fircrest neighborhood.

Xin Xu (his real name; the Western moniker “Gino” somehow stuck upon arrival in America), son of a painter father and Beijing Opera singer mother, has learned and given much in his stay with Camas hosts Shawn and Karla George, and their children Kyle and Kelsey (a Seton freshman this year).

There were awkward times: The chomping sound and motion Gino used to convey the word “cucumber,” which proved hard to say. Flapping his arms, an effort to learn if squid were on the restaurant menu. His habit to pad around in a kimono and pajama pants, sometimes worn under school clothes.

Conversely, shock at young women here who sport skimpy bikinis.

Discoveries: A spring trip to Disneyland, a blast even if Gino doesn’t like that rodent mascot. A pumpkin patch hunt, carving, and roasting seeds. Clam digging at Washington’s Long Beach, where he found the U.S. isn’t always “free” as described — those digging permits and all. (Oh, but he did appreciate Jake the Alligator Man.)

Finding sweet chile sauce at a local Asian market, just like a Japanese brand he can’t get at home. Which he then splashed on nearly every meal here.

Awareness: Gino fussed over Shawn, a health care supervisor, when Shawn rested at home after neck surgery. He shed shyness to befriend Seton classmates, even take on a small speaking role in the school’s Shakespeare play. He cooked noodles and dumpling-pot sticker meals for the Georges, and for others.

Then, there’s that chile sauce: As the George family and his Seton peers observed Lent, Gino gave up his addiction.

“I don’t think he knew it was for 40 days. I think he thought it was just for the weekend or something,” said Karla, a property management employee, laughing. “But it was good to sacrifice something.”

Taking faith

It might seem odd, the earnest Georges taking in an agnostic teen from officially atheist China (so says the U.S. State Department). That’s after Seton leaders sought hosts, and with Kyle entering Clark College and leaving their Grass Valley neighborhood home, Shawn, Karla and Kelsey thought, “Why not?”

No one claims Gino will latch onto Catholicism. But the family believes it has imparted a most important element.

“That’s what he’ll take: That lesson in faith, whatever form that might be,” Shawn said. “It was neat that he thought (the cross pendant) was something he felt comfortable with.”

Gino also leaves Seton High and the Georges enriched. A gifted sketch artist and painter groomed to follow his father’s path, he captured the Seton building in a broad mural, now hung inside. He’s also painted vivid scenes of wild macaw birds and of wildflowers, the latter a gift to Kelsey.

“I’m good at drawing people with pencil. But I prefer animals and trees with color,” Gino said with a bright smile, his English now far improved. He kept sharp with after-school classes at the Medallion Art School.

Ed Little, Seton High principal, said the foreign students made a positive splash in a year when total enrollment doubled, to 82 students.

Joining Xin Xu in 11th grade was Haein Jeong, 17, from South Korea; sophomore Erik Sausa, 16, came from Slovakia.

“All three of them provided a world perspective to our school,” Little said. “Our kids were able to ask a lot of questions about their school systems, their way of life. That’s what it’s about, to learn about culture.”

Gino enjoyed the pageantry of Catholic rituals, and typical American school camaraderie. The college prep environment didn’t faze him, and he sponged up lots of U.S. history, he said.

It’s far different at home, where long, rigorous days might be followed by a teacher’s text to parents about an assignment, or exam. “There’s no casualness” about school in Beijing, Karla learned from him.

The Georges learned some high Chinese etiquette, too. Gino’s mother and uncle visited Camas in February, during Chinese New Year. At a festive home gathering, Shawn and Karla received an authentic tea set and a lesson on formal serving.

It was about then that Xin Xu (pronounced “Shin shoo”) set the record straight on his Western handle: a puzzler that emerged somewhere between scads of foreign study paperwork, and his first days in town.

“He didn’t know how he got the name ‘Gino,’” Karla said.

Given a choice, Xin Xu would prefer “Solid Snake,” he said (a super-soldier character from the “Metal Gear” video game).

The Georges were baffled.

After all, Karla said, “He loves Italian food. That’s his favorite.”