WILDWOOD — Part-time summer jobs help forge many kinds of friendship.
For Harry Springfield Jr. and Paul Bryson, two summertime operators of the famous Sightseer tram car, their summer job meant making lasting friendships with more than 50 international students who have come to work on the Boardwalk through the J-1 visa summer work travel program.
The program, which is overseen by the U.S. State Department, allows international college students to live and work in the United States for the summer to experience temporary cultural and travel opportunities.
Since the program is the first time many of the students have been away from their home countries, Springfield, Bryson and many of their fellow tram car employees take on the role of surrogate parents to welcome the students.
“They’re like daughters, sons, nieces and nephews to all of us,” Springfield said.
Springfield, 68, of Vineland, and Bryson, 74, of Roxborough, Pennsylvania, scrolled through the digital photo galleries on their phones from a recent trip to Asia, where they met up with several of the students they grew to love.
“Many of the kids call us their American papas,” Springfield said. When the students arrive to work for the summer, the tram employees do what they can to make them feel comfortable.
“We take care of them,” said Bryson. “We’ll take them to the store or tell them what they should see while they are here in America.”
For the past three years, as each summer would end, Springfield and Bryson would promise to keep in touch and visit with their students. Springfield recalled getting emotional saying goodbye to Dori Lan, a student he considered like a daughter.
“She grabbed me by the shoulders and said, ‘Harry, don’t cry, come to Taiwan.’ So we did.”
In December, Bryson told Springfield, “If we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it.”
So the planning began.
Springfield and Bryson’s trip began March 11 with a full day of travel, flying from Philadelphia International Airport to San Francisco, then off to Hong Kong.
With help from Angela Yu Wen Liu, a former J-1 student now employed by EVA Air, the two toured areas of Hong Kong and Taiwan.
During their 10-day trip, Springfield and Bryson went nearly nonstop visiting the temples, monasteries and historic sites of Hong Kong by day.
“I was a history teacher,” said Bryson, “so I was enamored by Hong Kong.”
At night, they would dine out with their young friends.
The pair had nicknamed the students from the 2016 J-1 class they worked “trammies.” One of them, Yannas Hiu Yan Chung, took the men to see historic temples and try traditional Asian cuisine.
“I was tired from one day to the other” said Bryson.
Their day of touring led to evenings of walking around the night markets and sampling local delicacies. The pair sampled traditional Taiwanese boba tea — a sweet milk and tea-based drink topped with small tapioca or jellied balls. Sampling the unique foods and drinks was exciting for Springfield, a former food safety inspector for the Department of Agriculture, but Bryson didn’t find the boba to quite be his “cup of tea.”
“The kids are so respectful,” said Springfield. “They would walk with us and hold our hands to guide us around.”
During their trip, Springfield estimates they met with more than half of the 50 J-1 students they keep in touch with, all of whom were excited to see that their American friends had visited them.
From Hong Kong, the pair traveled to Taiwan and the capitol city of Taipei and met with more of their “trammies.”
The biggest moment of their trip came when Springfield and Bryson hopped aboard a high speed train line to travel to a smaller city, Chiaya.
According to Springfield, the ride to the agricultural town about 220 miles away took about 90 minutes. The men were on their way to visit a 2016 ‘trammie’ Erica Liu and her family. Upon arriving, the men were greeted by the family, including Liu’s infant daughter Kate. Liu, who had grown close to Bryson during her time in Wildwood, had asked him for an American name for her daughter. Bryson suggested Kate, after his own sister.
The community in Chiaya also helped welcome the American travelers. Inside what Springfield called the community center, the men were greeted by a choir of local women playing ukuleles and singing traditional songs, before breaking into a rendition of the American classic, “You Are My Sunshine.”
“We’re still kind of suffering from the ‘Asian blues,’” Springfield said. “We miss the kids a lot.” Both Springfield and Bryson use social media to communicate with the J-1 students, using the direct messaging features on Facebook and Instagram. Sharing photos and messages with the kids helps them stay in touch internationally.
Scrolling through the photos on their phones, Springfield and Bryson smiled at the memories they made during their whirlwind trip.
“I can’t wait to go back,” said Springfield.