Being the new kid in class is never easy, but imagine being in a new school, in a new country, full of students with a different belief system. That's what's happening at Immaculata Academy in Hamburg, which welcomes international students, some of whom received their first taste of Catholicism when the first bell rang.
Some Chinese parents chose to send their children to American high schools to prepare them for American colleges, which are seen to outperform Chinese schools and better place the students in the global marketplace. An all-girls Catholic school offers safety, kindness and no boys, all of which please protective parents as they send their daughters 6,000 miles away from home.
Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism are the most practiced religions in China. Some might consider them to be non-theistic philosophies rather than true religions. Christianity, banned in the 1700s, has seen a resurgence in the last 40 years. Today, 12 million people or 1 percent, identify as Catholic.
Deacon Robb Cieski, theology teacher and campus minister at Immaculata, has the task of teaching the concept of one omnipotent God and 2,000 years of tradition.
"When they first come in they are frightened, because they don't understand what is being offered to them because they have no background. There's no history. There's no tradition. So, to offer them our tradition or any tradition, is frightening for them," he said. "I like to see the change from the beginning of school to the end of school. They are more willing to listen and accept what we are teaching them. One of my most favorite moments in a class is when you are not on the regular curriculum and a discussion happens to take off in a different direction, and the American students are asking questions of the foreign students and vice versa."
Things that most Catholics learn in elementary school, such as the Trinity and Jesus' resurrection, can be hard for someone without a Western background to grasp.
"They struggled most recently with Lent. They didn't understand why this man Jesus died. They didn't get it, and it was really hard for them to accept, which is hard for many people including Catholics, that Jesus rose from the dead. That was very foreign to them," Deacon Cieski said. "I keep it basic as much as I can for them. I don't want to give them too much because I don't want them to be overwhelmed, and yet I have to pace myself with the other students. It's challenging, but extremely rewarding."
For the girls who come here, Immaculata offers so much more than the schools back in China, such as sports and extracurricular clubs. In China, the junior year of high school focuses on a college placement test. Every free moment is spent studying and everything else stops.
"The third year of high school, you pretty much can't do anything," said Yaxin Ren, a 16-year-old from Beijing. "You have to focus on study to choose your college or university. The one test we take at the end of the year will determine if your life is going to be all good and you go to an awesome school or you will fail and be a beggar in the street."
Although that is an extreme way of looking at it, the test is considered to determine your place in life.
"They basically study their whole life for this one test. Their classwork doesn't mean as much to them. That's a big adjustment for when they're here," said Andrea Drabik, director of admissions and international admissions for Immaculata Academy.
Immaculata works with an agency in China to recruit students. Parents and students look through a book of approved schools, then choose what seems to be the best fit. Some may pick a school close to New York City, or prefer something on the warm West Coast. Immaculata uses Skype to interview prospective students to evaluate their English skills.
"It's pretty much like a catalog. You're listed as a school, they get your information out there, then parents come into the agent's office and say, 'This is what we're looking for,'" said Drabik.
Parents usually look for a safe place that offers a good education. Being Catholic is a secondary consideration.
Moyi Wang's host father took her to Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna her first day in America. There, she got to know Father David Baker, who served as parochial vicar at the time. "He's so nice. I like him a lot. I go to talk with him. He introduced some of the things about God, about Gospels and how they pray to God. I felt that is interesting. I went to the church every Saturday and Sunday with my host family last year," said the 17-year-old from Dalian. "My host father loves to teach me the prayers, the Hail Marys and those things. We always talk about that when he drives me to the bus station every morning. So, I learned through that."
Wang considered joining an RCIA program, and eventually joining the Catholic faith, but the concept of heaven confused her. Like most Chinese, religious or not, she was raised with the concept of reincarnation, and couldn't come to terms with the idea of an afterlife not on earth.
"That's a little bit rough for me to understand," she said.
Dixin Xie, 18, from Shanghai, grew up without any religion, so accepting new ideas comes easier for her.
"It's not really difficult for me because in China I really don't have a religion, so everything is new here, so I only have to learn. I don't need to adjust anything," she said, adding her host mother is not Catholic so Xie doesn't attend church. "I think the way I understand Catholic is from this school."
"They know before they come (to Imaculata) that theology is going to be taught. It's a class you have to take and you can treat it like a history class, that it's information," Drabik said. "Some of the girls have gotten much more involved in what they are learning about. They are told we are not here to convert them. It is history and information."
Theology class teaches morals and values, and service and giving back to you community, which appeal to the students and parents.
If she had to choose what school to attend, Ren would still choose a Catholic school.
"Because all the girls have their faith. They know pretty much what they should do, and they have a clear idea of what's right and what's wrong, so it's better than a normal public school that doesn't have any religion with them," she said.
Immaculata Academy currently has 14 international students from China, Korea and Malaysia. The school is in the process of expanding to accept students from South America and Europe.