Thirty-five students from an international school in Malaysia arrived in Secaucus on July 7 to kick off an eight-day whirlwind visit to the United States. The town served as their home base as they went on a tour that spanned New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington DC, with visits to Times Square, a Broadway show, Niagara Falls, and Ellis Island. The days in Secaucus included a special reception, a peace walk, and service activities among others. Twenty-two of the students had the opportunity to stay with eight local families, which some considered one of the most memorable parts of the trip.
“The home stay experience was my favorite part,” said 15-year-old Jonathan Chen from Malaysia. He stayed with Alice Mui and her son Jonathan. Jonathan from Malaysia hit it off with Jonathan from Secaucus.
“Ms. Mui was just great,” said 16-year-old Iramul Haque from Bangladesh. “We were one of the lucky few who got the home stay experience.” Haque said it was his second time visiting the United States. He said that he found everyone to be “super friendly.”
“We embraced them, they embraced us,” said local host Alice Mui. “We were just really happy to have them.” Mui hosted three students, Chen, Haque and Pornthipa Srijan Rita Rickard from Bangladesh. Her 23-year-old son Jonathan was excited about hosting the students. He was one of the founding members of the local chapter of People to People International, which is called Go International for Tomorrow (GIFT). The group has organized a number of cultural events throughout the year to raise awareness and support for local and international efforts.
“They treated us like we knew them for years.” – Hanna Awang
“This visit embodies what PTPI is all about and it is an example of how people break stereotypes by simply meeting face to face,” said Viktor Zikas, PTPI managing director for special programs and Asia Pacific operations. “Your members allowed our guests to get a glimpse at an American way of life.”
“It was always in my dream to come to America,” said 16-year-old Hanna Awang who is from Malaysia. She stayed with George and Alicia Sikaffy. “I saw it as a dream come true.” Awang had visited Korea last December and Switzerland the year before but said that there was something about the United States that drew her in.
Awang along with the other visiting students attends Kolej Tuanku Jaafar, an international boarding school in Malaysia. They represent a number of different backgrounds including Bangladeshi, Indian, Malay, Thai, British, and Indonesian. They also practice various religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. On average the students are trilingual and at a minimum all of the students spoke a second language and were fluent in English.
“In Malaysia we are pretty much reserved,” said Awang. She found the hugs and kisses she received from her host family very different from the more formal customary greetings in her home country. “They treated us like we knew them for years.”
“When we introduce ourselves it is like filling in a form,” said Chen. “When they introduce themselves they really tell you what they like to do and what they are passionate about.”
“They were surprised they could talk to me so intimately and openly,” said Mui. She said that she thought the students were going to be more private but they shared a lot about their lives.
“It was very fulfilling to share different experiences,” said Munira Mazlan who is from Malaysia. She stayed with George and Alicia Sikaffy. Mazlan said that the United States is much more multicultural than what she is accustomed to seeing on television.
“It was very good in the sense that I actually got to see the country through my own eyes,” said Mazlan. “It is a lot better than the stereotypes.”
Lifelong resident Patty Mondadori hosted two young women from Indonesia. A couple of years ago she hosted Italians. To prepare for the visit Mondadori said that the hosts learned details about the students such as their religion and dietary restrictions. Despite her initial expectations about their food restrictions, she was surprised the students were open to tasting a number of foods from sushi to burgers.
“They were open to trying everything,” said Mondadori. She said it was exciting to see the young women taste Italian Ice for the first time.
Mondadori said that hosting was a nice experience and that she would recommend it to others.
“I would definitely do it again,” said Mondadori.
Peace through understanding
“Welcoming students to our home was an enriching experience,” said Cathy Wolf, PTPI student chapter advisor and host. “It’s an eye opening [experience] to see that the [students] are full of knowledge in global issues.”
Wolf noted that it was inspirational to witness the mission of PTPI, peace through understanding, take place live among 70 multicultural and multinational youth. She said that the group went beyond stereotypes to establishing international friendships.
“It was great to meet and speak to this wonderful group of young people. Their energy and enthusiasm was second to none,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli. “Together we all learned a little more from each other.” Gonnelli added that he hopes these types of programs will continue in the future.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at email@example.com.