Wu Siwei (right), Ammon Cunningham and his wife Marissa playing a card game. The American couple stayed in Wu's home for 15 days in exchange for a two-hour English conversation everyday. Gao Erqiang / China Daily
A novel concept is marrying budget-conscious travelers to the nation with hungry-for-English yuppie Chinese. Shi Yingying reports
When 22-year-old Ammon Cunningham and his wife Marissa from Utah's Salt Lake City decided to visit Shanghai in the middle of June, accommodation was the last thing on their mind, despite it being peak time for hotel occupancy, thanks to the on-going Expo. The young couple had arranged to stay in a 140-square-meter apartment in Putuo district for free, in exchange for English conversation everyday with their hosts - 18-year-old Wu Siwei and his mother, Jin Yujun.
This was made possible by a non-profit Chinese organization called Tourboarding, which offers a virtual platform for free lodging in Chinese homes in exchange for English tutoring. Guests are required to speak at least two hours of English every day in return for their stay, giving their Chinese hosts the chance to learn from a resident live-in English teacher for free - lessons that can otherwise costs 200-350 yuan ($30-50) an hour, and even more than 1,000 yuan an hour at some training institutions.
"I think it is very nice to actually be this close to the local culture," says Ammon. "We would like to not only visit tourist spots, but also see how a Chinese family lives, what their customs are like, and what's their favorite television show."
Although Ammon's company in the US would have covered his cost of accommodation as one of the aims of his 15-day trip is to expand business with the Shanghai branch of Gymboree (an early childhood education company), the young man chose the Shanghai family over a star hotel.
He chanced on the Tourboarding website while "looking for information on Chinese culture and what's okay to do".
"I thought this might be fun to try," says Ammon. "So we contacted Wu's mother and the rest is history."
Wu, a recent high school graduate, was most excited when he heard that two English-speaking foreigners would be staying at his home. The teenager is currently preparing for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for his future plans to study in the US.
"Unlike the formal teaching in my school, the conversations I have with Ammon and Marissa are more like everyday conversations between friends," Wu says.
"To spend more time with them, I show them around Shanghai and that means far more than two hours of English every day."
Ammon says they talk about diverse topics. "I think that's really good as in China, students usually memorize everything so they can clear a test. This kind of conversation is a lot more difficult for them."
As to suitable US universities for Wu, Ammon's 20-year-old wife Marissa, who is still in her last year at university says, "I'd definitely encourage him to go to the University of Utah. It is very famous and near our city."
Marissa says the biggest cultural shock for her is the lack of personal space. "Here in China people are always right next to each other, but in the US, everyone tries to keep away as much as possible.