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Exchange student learns the ropes at fire department
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Carlisle School exchange student Feng Cheng Xu (left) is dressed by Martinsville fireman Dwayne Robertson. Feng, originally from Shanghai, China, is doing a two-week internship at the Martinsville Fire Department to fulfill a school requirement. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

A tall, sturdily built student donned firefighter’s gear Friday at the Martinsville Fire Department. He did not do it because there was a burning building, but mostly to have one more chance to wear the gear before returning to school.

“This stuff is hot,” he observed.

Though his school is nearby, he is, as they say, not from around here.

Feng Cheng Xu is a senior exchange student at Carlisle School who originally is from Shanghai, China. Like all Carlisle seniors, he was given the choice between a research project or a two-week internship at a local business. Feng chose to work for the Martinsville Fire Department, learning the ropes of emergency work.

Feng, who has lived with former vice mayor James “Kook” Clark and his wife Debbie for the past two years, chose to do an internship at the fire department at the suggestion of the man he calls his “American dad.” Clark is a former assistant fire chief for the city.

Students in high school or college often choose internships with the fire department either out of interest in firefighting or EMS work or to help get training for a career in the emergency service, said Dan Howell, the current assistant fire chief. But, he said, this is the first time the department has had an exchange student as intern.

Though Feng’s assignment is to observe and report on what he learned, Howell and the others at the fire house have given him other jobs to do, he said. He has participated in training exercises wearing full firefighting gear, helped shop for and cook meals for the crew, and also helped on an EMS call Friday, he said.

Howell said the department had shown Feng “a lot of basic operations. We’ve done a lot of fire training. Each day, we try to expose him to another aspect of it.”

Feng also spent a day with Fire Marshal Ted Anderson, examining buildings and issuing citations for structures that violated fire codes, he said.

His host family suggested working at the fire station, Feng said, because, “this is interesting. Every day is different.”

“I like this job,” he said, because it gives him the opportunity to help people. However, “I don’t think I can do this job after my college.”

Feng is going to college for business because “that’s my father’s thing,” he said. “He really wants me to do that.” Feng said he wants to enter either the hotel or bank management business someday.

“That’s dangerous work,” he joked. “(More) dangerous than this.”

Feng prefers firefighting to EMS work because “he doesn’t do good at the sight of blood,” Howell said.

“EMS is not for me,” Feng said.

Feng said he doesn’t see himself as a firefighter later in life, because there are no volunteer fire companies in China and he doesn’t plan on it as a career.

Still, one benefit of working with fire and EMS crews, Feng said, is that the dedication to hard work that is necessary for firefighters can translate into the business world.

“Firefighters work 24 hours,” he said. In business, “I don’t need to teach my people” how to do their jobs, but he will need “to give them the will to work and help themselves,” he said.

Part of the reason he came to Carlisle, he said, was because his father wanted him to attend an American high school to improve his English. Though Feng attended a school in California before coming to Martinsville, he said he had fewer opportunities to rely on English to communicate there.

“America has a lot of exchange students,” he said, noting that many of them are Chinese. In California, Feng said most of his friends were fellow Chinese exchange students, with whom he would speak Chinese.

In Martinsville, however, he hasn’t had that luxury. That, he said, has given him a lot of opportunities to improve his second language.

“Here, they like (to) talk,” he said. “In California, they don’t talk as much.”

Howell said the biggest issue the fire department has had to overcome with Feng has been the language barrier, but it hasn’t posed a major problem.

“Despite some cultural differences, we’ve had no major issues,” he said. “He’s incorporated himself pretty good into the American way of life.”

That has been easy, Feng said, since local people seem to like to talk to him.

“Maybe I’m something special,” he said.

In his spare time, Feng said he likes to play basketball and swim at the YMCA and attend church activities with his friends. His passion, however, is snowboarding.

“I’ve only been snowboarding here one time,” he said, since the winters have been mild.

He will, however, have more opportunities to snowboard when he attends college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he will study business.

Feng said he doesn’t know whether he will try to pursue a career in the U.S. or China, though he noted his father would like him to return to Shanghai to work. Feng, however, doesn’t rule out either one, and he plans to get a green card just in case.

“Maybe I’ll have an American girlfriend,” he joked.

Whatever the future holds for the exchange student, Howell said he believes Feng is up to the challenge.

“I think he could do anything he decided he wanted to do,” Howell said.

“Good answer,” Feng said.


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