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Ponrakit ‘Rio’ Puorcharoen gets to know New York with a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Photo from Lynellen Nielsen

A new student roaming the halls of Comsewogue High School is getting into a New York state of mind.

Ponrakit Puorcharoen journeyed to Long Island from Thailand this year to attend school because he “wanted to learn about a new culture.”

The 15-year-old foreign exchange student, who goes by the nickname Rio, hails from Nonthaburi, a city near Bangkok and the Gulf of Thailand.

Rio said in a phone interview that he did not get to choose where he was going to be placed, and did not know much about New York before arriving stateside. His host family — Lynellen and Rick Nielsen and their sons, Jeremy and Josh — has tried to show him around, taking him to New York City. He saw the Museum of Modern Art and Times Square, which Rio thinks is “crazy, with the amount of people there.”

His family in Port Jefferson Station got involved in part because of the host mom’s childhood memories.

Foreign exchange student Ponrakit ‘Rio’ Puorcharoen takes a trip to the aquarium with his host family. Photo from Lynellen Nielsen
Foreign exchange student Ponrakit ‘Rio’ Puorcharoen takes a trip to the aquarium with his host family. Photo from Lynellen Nielsen

“When I was a child, my family had a foreign exchange student, and it was a really positive experience,” Lynellen Nielsen said in a phone interview. “I thought it was something that Jeremy should experience as well.”

Jeremy is a senior at Comsewogue High School, two years ahead of Rio, while Josh is enrolled at Hunter College.

Lynellen Nielsen described the process of applying for the foreign exchange program as “serendipitous.”

She and her family had considered hosting a student many times, but didn’t begin the process until she discovered a friend of hers had begun working for the International Student Exchange Programs. After the family applied, Nielsen said once the organization approved them, they were able to choose from a number of students to host for the year.

“We saw [Rio] had similar interests, like animals, cooking, technology and art,” she said. “We thought he would be a great match.”

Although Rio arrived in the United States on Aug. 9, he didn’t get to Long Island until Aug. 22 because he went though a training program.

“His first question when he walked into our house was, ‘What’s the Wi-Fi password?’ so he’s just like any other kid around here,” Nielsen said with a laugh.

Since Rio has adjusted to his new living situation, he and his host family have been able to bond over many different activities. He has cooked basil pork and other traditional Thai dishes for the family, and the host mom, in turn, introduced him to strawberry pie and banana bread.

In terms of school life, Rio said he has not found many differences between school in America and school in Thailand. He said the only real difference is that students don’t get to choose the classes they take back home, and that Americans use the word “soccer” for the same sport he calls “football,” which he finds “a little weird.”

“My favorite thing to do so far has just been relaxing with the family,” Rio said. “They are very chill.”

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Students from Harbor Ballet Theatre perform a dragon dance at last year’s festival. Photo from PJCC

Dragons will roar as the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce will once again host the Port Jefferson Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Mayor Jeanne Garant Harborfront Park, 101 E. Broadway, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“This year’s ‘Dragons’ is bigger and better than last year! With the expansion of teams, entertainment and food, this festival has something for everyone,”  said Barbara Ransome, director of operations at the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce.

“One goal this year was to create a more interactive program for the day for not just the teams but for spectators as well, including bringing in the racing course closer to land for better viewing. Collaborating with more community partners makes this event inclusive to our residents and visitors,” she added. Ransome came up with the idea of creating this festival after attending a similar event in Cape May, N.J., a few years ago.

An opening ceremony will include an Asian color guard along with the blessing of the fleet by Buddhist Monk Bhante Nanda of the Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center, incorporating the traditional eye dotting ceremony to kick off the races.

Twenty-four teams will compete in a 250-meter course in  four dragon boats provided by the High Five Dragon Boat Company and will include representatives from local hospitals, civic groups, businesses and cultural organizations. Each team will be made up of 20 “paddlers,” one steersman and one drummer. Heats will run all day with a culmination  of an awards ceremony at the end of the day.

In addition to the races, there will be a day-long festival featuring numerous performances, including a lion dance, Taiko and Korean drum performances and Asian singing and instrumentals along with educational and cultural displays and vendors. Various Asian delicacies, including pot stickers, lo mein, bánh mì Vietnamese pork sandwiches, sushi, stir-fried noodles, bubble tea and spring rolls, will be available.

Along with traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, there will be dragon sculptures, an opportunity to paint “dragon” eggs and children’s crafts. New this year is a Fortune Cookie raffle sponsored by the Fortunato Breast Health Center, Asian souvenirs, a photo booth, photo opportunities with a friendly dragon and team contests for the best team T-shirt and best costumed drummer.

Sponsors include Confucius Institute of Stony Brook, LONGISLAND.com, New York Community Bank-Roslyn Savings Division, Fortunato Breast Health Center, SCNB Bank, Tritec, News 12, Times Beacon Record Newspapers and Unity SEO Solutions.

The event will be held rain or shine and admission is free. Bring a blanket or lawn chair and come enjoy the festivities. For more information, call 631-473-1414 or visit www.portjeffdragonracefest.com.

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