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Bill and Frank’s Excellent Adventure

Experience 

The landlocked city of Chengdu is one of Western China’s most populous cities with over 14 million residents. For a child growing up there the Gold Coast must seem like heaven on earth.

For the past three years Chengdu high school students have competed for the opportunity to come to the Gold Coast for an education experience. Needless to say, it’s been a very popular competition.

This year thirteen Chengdu students ranging in age from 13 to 17 became the chosen few and what an experience it was. Naturally they visited a host of the Gold Coast’s many attractions, including the city’s education and training campuses, but the real objective was for them to get a taste of what it’s like to live and study on the Gold Coast.

For most of the students the highlight of their experience was not the city’s attractions, but the opportunity to live with an Australian family.

Homestay

Bill and Frank are both 17, but have little in common. Bill is lively, though a little shy and measures up at around 165cm tall. He lives with his grandparents and comes from a very modest background. This is his first trip overseas. Frank, at a towering 190cm is a thoughtful, gentle giant, whose head often leans towards his shoulder. I’m guessing that it may be a legacy of constantly having to duck down in a country where so few are exceptionally tall, but it also has the effect of highlighting his contemplative manner. Frank has travelled considerably through South East Asia and has also been to America.

The boys are billeted together with the Marando family in Ashmore and attend Trinity Lutheran College. They talk freely about the contrast between their lives at home and living on the Gold Coast. In Chengdu, where real estate is precious, their homes are apartments – here, they are guests in a spacious home on a quarter acre block with a swimming pool. They feel like movie stars.

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Their homestay hosts David and Chloe Marando engage with their guests as they cook up a big weekend breakfast. Frank is flipping pancakes as Bill helps cook the bacon. They talk about everything from career options in China (jobs are so competitive that most people have only one career in their lives says Frank), to what they watch on television (Bill has become hooked on the Netflix series ‘Stranger Things’).

The Marandos have 3 young children who adore their Chinese guests. Bill plays with one of the Marando kids on the couch, while Frank is being collectively scaled by the other 2 children, hanging off him and laughing like he’s their own personal amusement ride.

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It’s wonderful to watch the interaction between the Chengdu students and their host families. There’s curiosity on both sides in an atmosphere that’s filled with genuine warmth and fun.

School Life

At school I visit Frank and Bill in the classroom at Trinity and again it’s an engaging environment. The local Gold Coast kids are full of questions with Bill and Frank all too happy to share, but it’s two-way traffic with just as many questions asked of their Australian counterparts. It’s such a richly rewarding experience that you can’t help but be moved by what you see.

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When I ask the boys if they think they might like to return to the Gold Coast to study at university their answers are telling. For Bill, he simply doesn’t have the financial means, so he knows it’s out of the equation, but for Frank the experience has totally changed his plans. Originally he intended to go to university in China, but he was so impressed by the campuses at Bond and Griffith he now wants to study here.

At the farewell dinner for the Chengdu students Frank is chosen to speak on behalf of the group. In front of a crowded room Frank is asked if he enjoyed the experience of staying with his host family. With his head in its favoured position tilted to one side he pauses and reflects for a few moments before answering: “if this is a dream I don’t ever want to be woken up.” He then turns to his host family and says: “I love you.” There’s barely a dry eye in the house.