Feeling like part of their family

Palmers welcome Chinese teenager into their home for the school year


Christmas usually comes early at the Palmer house.

Decorations start going up a week before Thanksgiving. But this year, Temple resident Laura Palmer started a little earlier to help Joyner Chen, her exchange student from Wuhan, China, attending Central Texas Christian School, get familiar with the Texas way of celebrating Christmas.

“Christmas decorations in the house make me feel happy,” Palmer said. “There is something about the season, celebrating Jesus’s birth. Something about it brings so much happiness. It just feels good. I love it.”

Palmer was a bit reluctant to bring in another teenager to live with her and her daughter, McKenzie, 16, but their mutual desire to experience other cultures outweighed any concerns.

“At first didn’t want to bring in another student then decided I wanted to do it. I’m excited,” said Laura Palmer, who was inspired by a friend who hosted a student. “It’s a little scary, bringing another teenager into your home. I was a little hesitant at first and thought a lot about it.”

Her friend’s student was from the ASSE program instead of the program offered by CTCS. Palmer said foreign students have a choice of where they want to go and what family to stay with. Host families also choose their student from a country that interests them.

Students come from all over the world to experience life in the United States. Exchange students spend a full school year with their host family, attending classes and school events, learning about their host state and Texas hospitality. So this year Palmer grew her family to include one more teenager.

“We wanted experience about other cultures, so why not open our doors? We have the space. Why not give opportunity for a kid to have a fun experience and to learn about them,” McKenzie said.

The Palmers chose to host a Chinese student, because of China’s familial culture.

“It was my understanding their culture is very friendly and respectful and it seemed like an interesting culture to learn about,” Laura Palmer said.

“I heard good things about the Chinese culture,” McKenzie added.

Chen, 16, likes America. She speaks some English and is learning more every day. If she gets a stuck on a word, she refers to a translation app on her smartphone. With the push of a button she is able to take an English word and have it pop up in her native language.

When you ask her what her favorite thing about Texas is, she is quick to respond, “The sky. It’s so low, big.”

She also enjoyed her first visit to a Target store. “Wow, wow, wow,” were the words she said standing in the store, looking at all the selections.

She is also amazed at the buildings around Central Texas, not the skyscraping apartment towers most people live in back home in Wuhan, China. And she was taken in by the wide open spaces and lower buildings.

“Not so crowded,” she said.

Wuhan is the capital of China’s Hubei Province. It is 3,280 square miles with a population of 10.6 million people, mostly living vertically. In contrast, Bell County is 1,088 square miles with a population of 334,941 people.

Joyner Chen likes learning about life in Texas, but says she misses home in China, especially the food.

Texas-size fun

Chen arrived in Austin on Aug. 20 at 5 a.m. Her flight was delayed and she stayed awake for 24 hours, watching from the sky as her plane descended on Texas, her first trip to the United States.

Up to now, adventures have been minimal, staying in Central Texas, and included a trip to Palmer’s favorite cupcake bakery in Georgetown; a drive to the Domain in Austin, and Schlitterbahn Water Park in New Braunfels.
Not long after she arrived, she celebrated her birthday, Texas style, when Palmer threw her a party at a local park with 30 of her new friends. In her culture, she said birthdays are quiet and spent with immediate family at a special dinner.

“I’m blown away at how supportive Central Texas Christian School is,” Palmer said. “Two exchange students came to support her.”

Palmer said since she has had time to know Chen, how quiet and shy she is, she couldn’t imagine her going into a big public school.

“A small private school is not as intimidating, scary,” she said.

Despite her growing knowledge of English, Chen said it is still difficult to keep up with lessons taught in a foreign language.

“Some things hard. Speaker talks a little fast,” she said. She gets help from her friend, another Chinese exchange student, and, Lindsay, an American student ambassador who helps her with her classes. The ambassador takes notes and gives them to Chen to translate.

“Every exchange student has a kid assigned to them,” Palmer said.

Christmas in Wuhan

Christmas is not the primary holiday in Wuhan, and it isn’t based on any religious factor. Trees are not allowed in the home and gifts are placed inside of a Christmas stocking.

Chen said Spring Festival is China’s main holiday and is a time of celebration, seeing relatives and friends and “eat dumplings.”

“I’d like to take Joyner to experience a bunch of different stuff, take her places to experience,” Palmer said. “Before she leaves in spring, I want to take her camping. I like taking her to different places to experience stuff. See her reaction.”

Chen is happy to be experiencing Texas, but like most travelers, she admits to being a little homesick.

“I miss Chinese food the most,” she said. “Rice with fried dough.” Some of her favorite regional foods are beef with coriander and caraway and sweet bean pudding. But she is looking forward to tasting American food.

“She doesn’t know what to expect for Thanksgiving or Christmas,” Palmer said. “I want Joyner to help me and my mom cook to experience the full Thanksgiving. On Christmas, she will make something of her own.”