Thursday, July 28, 2011

Know English, Will Travel

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.

However, the couple have their own separate bedroom and bathroom in Wu's house.

"Our bedroom is done up in the Japanese tatami style, while the living room is decorated with traditional Chinese calligraphy, and that's cool," says Marissa.

The Cunninghams usually have their breakfast and dinner "at home", talk to the family in English and spend the day either traveling or working.

"We even did dumpling together once with Wu and his mother," says Ammon who first picked this up from his father who lived for a while in Taiwan and is good at Chinese cuisine. "We're grateful for the treat and are thinking of preparing an American-style breakfast for them before leaving."

The most interactive moments between the American couple and their Chinese hosts come after dinner, when they either watch the popular TV matchmaking show If You Are the One (Fei Cheng Wu Rao), play the card game, Beat the Landlord, or Chinese chess. "It (the show) is so funny," says Ammon.

Wu says his mom Jin loves to try new things and her English is so good that she could communicate with the Cunninghams without any problem.

But doesn't Jin worry about their safety with two complete strangers in the house?

"Shanghai is my city, even if anything goes wrong, they will be more afraid than us," says Jin. "However, I have no concerns, the Cunninghams seem nice and friendly."

Tourboarding is the brainchild of an intrepid backpacker, 38-year-old Ken Chen. He says he found that 80 percent of tourists to China come as part of tour groups, while the comparative figure for Europe and America is 30 percent.

"That's when I came up with the idea of accommodating backpackers with ordinary Chinese families," says Chen, adding that the English tutoring is tailor-made for the Chinese.

Chen quit his job at Nike Sports China and joined forces with Nuno Zhang, 28, a former Google employee and a few expats to launch Tourboarding in April.

Their research showed that about 130 million Chinese fall in the 18-40 age group - their target host families - who are open to foreign cultures and eager to learn English. About 47 percent have evinced interest in the Tourboarding concept and 21 percent are willing to give it a try.

"In the past two months, more than 10,000 users have signed up on our website," says Chen. "We are especially popular in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Our overseas promotion now extends from English-speaking countries to Europeans and Japan."

According to Chen, most Chinese families interested in the program are those with children. "But they are also those with apartments that are big enough. Even some of young white collar workers are interested in Tourboarding, although they might still be renting their apartment and are not allowed to bring strangers home."

Spurred by the enthusiasm for Tourboarding, Chen is also thinking about building a "foreigners' city".

"Why should we not bring an English-speaking environment to China?" he asks.

"We can build a mini-city peopled with foreign backpackers who can be encouraged to live like they do in their home countries. English will be the only language of communication

"The Chinese can visit this 'city' and quickly improve their language skills," he says. 

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