There were a few empty seats and tired eyes around Verona Area International School classrooms when school returned from spring break last week.

A group of 53 from the school – including students and some of their families – had just returned from a trip to China, providing an opportunity for the Chinese-language immersion school’s students to test out their language skills and get a firsthand cultural experience.

The families had the chance to visit iconic landmarks like Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City palace, the Temple of Heaven and, of course the Great Wall, which was 9-year-old Felicity Ejercito’s favorite part of the trip, as she said she knew immediately what she wanted to do when she saw it.

“I want to climb all of this,” she recalled thinking.

And 10-year-old Brady Lake found it impressive to think about how it was constructed.

“It was really interesting how they built that all with hands,” Lake said.

For much of the week, the students were staying with host families and attending school at a 2,700-student, seven-story elementary school in Wuhan, China.

“It was a lot bigger and more crowded,” 6-year-old Dante Ejercito recalled.

That time spent with their host families and attending school was the highlight for many of the students who spoke with the Press about their experience.

“It was just kind of cool to see some of the similarities and differences with American culture,” said 12-year-old Sierra Ejercito.

That included eating the food – chicken feet and duck feet among the most adventurous the students cited – watching ping pong games that were “like the Olympics,” visiting the zoo with giant pandas and white tigers and sitting through classes. Even though they couldn’t fully understand what was being said as the teachers and students “talk a lot faster than we’re used to,” Maddie Andres, 14, said.

“We just got to learn a whole different lifestyle than ours,” said 12-year-old Brita Lake.

Some parents said the trip was a great chance for the students to see how their study of the language can help them in the future, as they at times had to translate instructions for public transportation or other directions to help their parents make it around.

“For us it was really important to show them the importance of what they’re learning,” said Michael Ejercito. “A reward to let them see what they’re working on.”

While there, some of the students said it felt like they had “paparazzi” around them, as Chinese citizens got close and took photos with them, admiring especially those with blonde hair.

By the time they left, some received scrapbooks from their host families and classrooms, and many students had built relationships that have continued through online chatting apps.

“At the end, everybody was getting really emotional,” said Andres.

“They were there (for) four days, and they have a lifelong connection,” added her mother, Sandy.

Contact Scott Girard at and follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.