Two Mora High School students, Abby Szoka and Gen Woods, along with chaperone Mary Johnson represented Vasaloppet USA in Changchun, China for the International Vasaloppet Student Cultural Exchange (IVSCE) from Aug. 4 to Aug. 11, 2019.
The exchange takes place now every two years on a rotating basis in one of the four Vasaloppet host cities around the world. The last exchange was held in Mora, Sweden in 2017. The next exchange will be in Asahikawa, Japan in 2021. Mora, Minnesota will host the exchange again in August of 2023 and has hosted the exchange three times in the past.
The student exchange is designed to promote inter-cultural understanding with the goal of fostering an appreciation of cultural similarities and differences among youth from the four countries.
In addition to the three participants from Mora, there were six students and two chaperones from Sweden and 10 host students from China. This year there were no delegates from Japan.
From Detroit the U.S. participants took a 13-hour flight to Beijing, followed by a two-hour flight to Changchun. Changchun is a city of 5 million people in the northeast region of China.
The participants stayed with families of students who attend the Changchun Foreign Language School.
“My host sister was 16 years old. She lived with her parents in a seventh floor apartment that we reached by elevator. They scanned their fingers to get into the apartment which was nice and clean and actually their summer home,” said Woods. During the school year, they lived closer to the school.
“My host sister Emily was super nice, very helpful and spoke good English,” said Szoka. “We really became good friends.” Emily was very interested in learning what we did at school in the U.S. She was surprised that we participate in school sports. Emily told Abby that Chinese students have to study long hours in preparation for their college entrance exam. “It’s very competitive,” Szoka added. “I cannot complain about homework.”
“The people were amazing,” said Woods. “I am grateful for the experience. I am very happy for the people that I met and I will stay in contact with them. We talk to them every day and share pictures of school and things we are doing.”
Each day was busy with activities planned for the group which began at the school. One day they went to Jilin City, about an hour from Changchun. There they visited old temples and a historical museum. “That was my favorite day when we took a high-speed train to see five gorgeous temples and to learn about the history and culture of China. I rode on more public transit in one day than I have in my entire life,” said Szoka.
Activities at the school included learning about Chinese calligraphy, tie-dying, paper cutting and making traditional Chinese dumplings. “We got to try Taiji Kung Fu in a dance studio. It was like yoga with slow music,” said Szoka. The group also visited an escape room, went to a sculpture park, took a bike tour and went to a trampoline park together. On the last day the students celebrated their week with games, dinner and presentations by students of each country.
“It was amazing in a city of over 4 million that 10 minutes away in the middle of the busy city there was the sculpture park with tons of people biking, walking, getting married or just hanging out,” said Woods.
The group was able to visit the site of the Vasaloppet China Nordic Ski Races. In addition to cross-country ski races, they also hold bike races and a marathon. “They have a beautiful Vasaloppet Museum,” said Johnson.
“We tried all kinds of foods that were very different than what we usually think of as Chinese food.” said Johnson.
The group had many dinners together at large circular tables with a Lazy Susan in the center. “We could take bites and sample all of the foods on the table as it went by. Everyone shared everything,” said Szoka.
Woods said that food was very interesting. She tried seaweed with rice in balls, lamb skin, chicken, lots of pork and some different vegetables. “They like their foods very spicy,” she added.
On their last day they learned that their flight home had been canceled. With an extra day in Beijing they were able to hire a driver to take them to see the Great Wall of China. “I got a weird feeling when I walked onto the Great Wall,” said Szoka. “It was so big and so historic that it made me feel so small.”
Benefits of the Exchange
Johnson believes it is valuable for us to travel to places outside of our comfort zone, to meet people from other parts of the world and learn about how they live. She added, “It was impressive to see how students interacted with each other. Our Chinese hosts really worked hard to plan a week of activities for us.”
Both girls highly recommend the IVSCE to other Mora youth. “I learned so much about China,” concluded Szoka. “It opened my eyes to how big the world really is and how small I am. Everyone needs to experience going out of America. There is so much to learn. I will always be thankful for this experience.”
“It is so different to travel to a foreign country. It leaves you with a lifetime of memories,” said Woods. “The exchange was well organized, it is a very successful program, a chance of a lifetime and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to travel. This was an absolutely amazing experience for which I am extremely grateful. It was a chance to experience all new things across the world and a new culture. I was completely blown away by everything we did.”
Students who would like to go to the IVSCE in Japan in August, 2021 can contact Mary Johnson, Tracey Johnson or the Vasaloppet Headquarters for more information.