- Associated Press - Saturday, May 6, 2017

HAHIRA, Ga. (AP) - Hank Yu depended on body language three years ago when he arrived from China to attend Valwood School.

His first taste of America came only a few days earlier. February 2014, he was 16. He and his mother flew into Atlanta. They landed during a rare snowstorm in the South.

No one understood them. They did not understand anyone. They were stuck in a world they never made.

“Being stranded in Atlanta stressed that I needed to learn English,” Yu said.

Three years later, the 19-year-old Valwood senior is preparing for graduation and his first trip home to China in two years.

He will take with him an unexpected love for live theatre.

Last spring, Yu tried out for a school play and won a part. Last fall, he landed a role in the Valwood production of “And a Child Shall Lead Them,” a Holocaust play about Jewish children living in a Nazi-controlled way station during World War II.

In this role, the young man who had arrived at Valwood depending on gestures to communicate won an outstanding performer award in the Georgia Independent School Association one-act play competition.

He performed again in the Valwood spring production of “Almost, Maine,” with long monologues within the dialogue.

Hank is a really hard-working person when it comes to theatre,” said Phyllis Childree, a teacher who directs Valwood’s theatre program. “He does well in theatre. Some students had a hard time understanding Hank before theatre. His English has developed through theatre.”

Yu said drama has given him a better grasp of the English language and opened doors for him. It changed his life.

His life has been about change ever since coming to America.

Zhihan Yu grew up in Nanjing, the capital city of the China province of Jiangsu, in the lower region of the Yangtze River.

He is the only son of a businessman father and a nurse mother, who wanted her son to study in America. She was familiar with Valdosta and chose Valwood as her son’s school.

“My mom said it’s a really peaceful place,” Yu said. “It’s a good place for you to live.”

She encouraged Zhihan to Americanize his name. He selected Hank by keeping the latter half of Zhihan and adding a k. Plus, he said, Hank was a character from the television show “Breaking Bad.”

Standing 6-foot-3, weighing a lean 230 pounds, Yu started as a waterboy with the Valiants football team then played defensive tackle. He has played basketball and wrestled. His parents expressed concerns about football, Yu said.

“They feel it is a dangerous game because of what they call armor - the pads,” Yu said. “My mom told me she hopes I come back in one piece.”

He “wanted to play football, so he started working out last spring to ‘get swole’ and didn’t go home (last) summer so he could do summer workouts and camps,” said Britt Rodgers Bugby, who provided Yu with a home during part of his stay in South Georgia. “Hank is a wonderful young man. His positive spirit is infectious and we will always consider him part of our family.”

A senior, he has stayed with a few South Georgia families. He is scheduled to graduate Valwood this spring. He will return home to China for the summer. He misses his family, he said.

While the plan was for Yu to return home and stay after school, he said he will be coming back to America and the South Georgia area specifically.

He wants to live and work in America.

He wants to continue in theatre.

Next fall, Hank Yu plans to be enrolled in Valdosta State University to study theatre, to better understand the human condition and to be better understood.

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