For Taiwanese student Ta-An “Andy” Shen, life in Flandreau is about as different as it could get from living with his family in his country’s capital city of Taipei.
For starters, the 15-year-old had never seen snow until moving in with his family, Ted and Corine Kulm north of Flandreau, where winter has been unrelenting. And, he’s used to city life in a metro area of more than 7 million people compared to country living where there is no public transportation. He’s come to enjoy crispy tacos and has made his host family fried rice like he eats at home.
All of the differences are part of the reason Shen wanted to become a foreign exchange student in the United States.
He convinced his parents to let him explore before deciding on a high school to attend in Taipei. His twin sister did the same thing and is staying with a host family in Arizona. The two won’t see each other during their school year in America, which ends in June.
“Let me go out to see the world. Let me choose,” he told his mother, a business woman, and his father, who works in city government. “I want to learn something.”
In addition to South Dakota and the state’s iconic Mount Rushmore, he has visited California and New York.
Shen, who in addition to his twin has one older brother, hopes to be an actor when he grows up, something he has done since he was younger. “I don’t like to study. I want to do something I want to do,” he said, adding that he will be required to pass a high-stakes test to graduate from high school.
At Flandreau, Shen has participated in the one-act play that advanced to state competition, played basketball, plays French horn in band and will run sprints in track, his favorite sport. English class is his most difficult subject. As a sophomore, he has to give speeches in the language he has only studied for one year. But math class is easy, he said. And in his nutrition and wellness class, he loved the papaya students sampled because he eats it in Taiwan, while his classmates were less impressed with the fruit.
Shen uses an app on his cellphone to find the words to use when he is unsure of the English equivalent of what he wants to say. That language limitation prevents him from showing his true personality, he said.
“I want to tell something funny, but I don’t know how to say it,” he said with a smile. Despite that, the friends he has made here think he is funny.
In his home country, Shen and his friends go to movies, go to karaoke places and love the night market, an expansive area of street food and places to eat.
“It’s all food,” he said. He also will hang out for hours with friends at a fast-food restaurant, for example.
This winter, he spends time at the Kulm home because it is too cold to do much outside. The Kulms have four children, Austin, Katherine, Ben and Isabel.
While his host family and he have many differences, they come together to share their lives and experiences, he said.
“It’s been fun getting to know someone that maybe we wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise,” said Corine Kulm. Their family celebrated Chinese New Year with Shen sharing his traditions, including the gift of a red envelope for each family member. He cooked them a dumpling dish and they hung up a happy new year banner in Chinese.
Their student’s conversational English has improved dramatically since he first came to live with them in August, she said. Inviting a stranger to live with in their home has meant some adjustments but has gone smoothly, she said.
“You just have to be open minded to realize they grew up differently than you,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to learn and grow and communicate. We don’t have the means to go visit Taiwan or some other country. That was beneficial because it’s bringing the world to us.”
Shen eats everything she has cooked for him and is easy going, showing a good rapport with his American siblings, including teasing and goofing off with them.
Shen may have experienced some culture shock coming from a large metropolitan area to a small town where nature is right outside the door of their home, she said. “I think he’s come to appreciate it,” she said.
But he has traded his tropical homeland for upper Plains weather this year, showing excitement at the first freezing rain by sliding around on it. As the winter lengthens, he’s been cold.
“This is my first time to see the snow. The first time was very exciting,” he said. “Now it’s like too much, too cold.”
He has difficulty explaining to people back home how South Dakota’s cold feels. “(You) can’t say just ‘cold,’” he said.