Popular Saugerties exchange student prepares to return to Hong Kong

Tom Tom talks about his love for America and all the people and things he will miss when he goes home to Hong Kong. (photo by Robert Ford)

A foreign exchange student who named himself after a childhood TV character said farewell on the last day of school at Saugerties High School. He is preparing to return to his homeland.

Man Wai Yin, better know to everyone as Tom Tom, a name he adopted as a youngster after watching countless episodes of Thomas the Train back in his home of Hong Kong is packing his bags.

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Earlier this week, he got on the high school’s PA system to say farewell. One student reported that many of the students were crying, as were some teachers and staff.

Tom Tom was the best foreign exchange student the school’s ever had, said teachers Marisa Trees and Sue Willig, the school’s music and chemistry/science teachers.

When Tom Tom was looking for a country to go to as a foreign exchange student last year, he chose the United States “because of the NBA.” “It was my love of basketball, and the chance to learn to speak better English,” he said during a recent interview.

English is one of the main languages taught in the former British colony of Hong Kong, but Tom Tom said his English wasn’t very good. He spoke mostly Cantonese, and Mandarin, and needed subtitles when watching English-speaking movies.

“Now I don’t need subtitles,” he says with pride.

“It was surprising when I first met him,” Willig said. “He was so outgoing, not shy at all.” Trees added that other foreign exchange students “were usually shy and didn’t say much.”

Tom Tom took the school by storm with his outgoing personality and his desire to learn as much as possible about this new culture.

“I was in Donlon gym,” recalled village mayor William Murphy, “when this student, who’d I’d heard a bit about from my daughter Jaclyn [a freshman at the high school] comes up to me and asks me if he could play some basketball.”

Murphy runs the youth basketball program in the village at the gym above the Saugerties Fire Department’s firehouse. “I said sure, and everyone in the program took to him. It was great,” Murphy said.

He proved not only outgoing and friendly with everyone he met, but was — and is — also a bit argumentative. “He’d try to teach me and Marisa some Chinese so we could communicate a bit better with him, and when we’d mispronounce a word, he’d say, No,” Willig said. And then the teachers and Tom Tom would go back and forth. It was fun, Willig and Tom Tom agreed.

Tom Tom came to the United States with one suitcase and his saxophone, an instrument he learned to play in Hong Kong. He played in the Saugerties High School orchestra, and played the national anthem solo before the start of a number of sporting events at the high school. He’d asked Mike Melville, the girls’ basketball coach, if he could do that, Murphy said. Tom Tom’s national anthem became a part of the school’s winter sports program.

He also took part in sports, participating on the school’s wrestling team and on the track-and-field squad.

He’ll be going home with a lot more than his sax and a suitcase. “I spent $500 and now I am going home with many suitcases,” Tom Tom laughed.

How would he compare America and Hong Kong when it came to food? He said the food was better over there, but the music her was better.

“That’s what he better say,” Trees said, looking at him. “We went to the Met [Metropolitan Opera] on a class trip and saw Carmen,” she said.

“And the basketball is better here,” Tom Tom added. He had a chance to go see the Knicks and the Celtics, two of his favorite teams.

What will he miss the most? “All the friends I made, and the fact that I didn’t have to wear a school uniform here, something I have to do in Hong Kong,” Tom Tom answered.

And the friends he made will miss him. When Murphy learned that Tom Tom didn’t have enough money to rent a tux for the senior prom, he paid for it.

Willig laughed when she recalled Tom Tom teasing her by saying said teachers didn’t work long hours here. “He’s just a good guy,” Willig said.

Trees added that Tom Tom was “so charismatic.”

Tom Tom didn’t disagree. “People will not forget me forever,” he said.

On June 27, the teen who named himself after a childhood train will board a plane for a 20-hour ride with his numerous suitcases. He’ll take with him all his memories about Saugerties and about all the friends he’s made.

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