At 16, a year on his own in China - Tucson Local Media: El Sol

At 16, a year on his own in China

NW student had an 'amazing' experience

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Posted: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:11 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

He didn't know where in China he would be going, and he didn't know what kind of household he would be living in for a year.

That was fine for Matthew Johnson.

Matthew, about to start his senior year at Salpointe Catholic High School, spent last year in Chongqing (pronounced 'chong-ching'), China as a foreign exchange student.

Leaving his Northwest side home, the 16-year-old did not know how to say anything beyond "hello" and "goodbye" in Chinese. All he had was the support of his family and a sense of adventure.

"China is one of the safest places we could be," Matthew said. "We're 16-year-olds, it's cheap, it's safe, and the food's great, the food's healthy, the lifestyle is healthy. It's the perfect way to keep alive. I was afraid, when I got there, that I would run into a lot of problems adjusting with people. I've seen my fair share of movies – the foreigner always has troubles getting adjusted to the lifestyle – but for me it was no problem. It was amazing."

During his travels, from Aug. 19 to June 21, Matthew stayed in a home that was a "very small house that was not very well kept."

Going into his travels, Matthew expected to be living with a family that was either middle or upper class. He reasoned it would cost a family a lot of money to support and feed a foreign exchange student.

"It was a real shock," Matthew said. "I was disappointed at first, but then I realized 'who was going to get the real experience?'"

His family treated him very well and gave him the freedom to travel and stay out later than one would usually let a 16-year-old stay out. With that, he is happy with his decision to travel to China for a school year.

"I didn't want to go to Europe, Usually people go to Europe. I've been to Europe and liked it a lot, but it is just what everyone does."

In China, Matthew was introduced to many new things. One was the food. "It's a red soup, and it's very, very spicy," some of the spiciest ingredients he had in China, Matthew said. Once the soup is boiling, raw food is placed in the pot and left to cook and absorb the spices.

He found local places near by his school and home where he and his classmates got to know the cook really well. He would go to local social hangouts at night where they played pool. And he took part in the traditional social experience known as karaoke bars. All those were good ways to learn Chinese.

Along with his travels and experiences, Matthew did learn. First and foremost, he learned Mandarin Chinese throughout, and helped teach English to other students.

Matthew and some of his fellow foreign exchange students got two-hour lunch breaks. After a while, they became boring, so the students decided to go into some of the classrooms to teach English.

With that, his schooling was not the same as the students who were born and raised in China. Matthew's school week was five days a week, starting each day at 7:50 a.m. and going until about 6 p.m., whereas the locals were in school until 10 p.m. and went six days a week.

"It was unbelievable," he said.

On top of those regular school hours for the locals, Matthew noticed some of the students getting ready to take their Gaokao test – a single exam that determines what the student will do with the rest of their lives. Matthew said those students "were always tired and always were smelling bad because they never had time to take a shower."

His father, Jeff, was a little hesitant about his son traveling to the other side of the earth for an entire junior school year not knowing what exactly his school and living conditions were going to be like.

"He has been lucky enough and fortunate enough to that he has traveled a bit with his mom or with me, but to be gone for that long, I was little apprehensive about it. I didn't think he was going to go through with it. It's not something we forced him to do. He wanted to do it."

But, after waiting about six months to travel over and see his son, Jeff found Matthew had matured and gained confidence.

"I became much more independent," Matthew said.

Now comes the real challenge. Matthew has to readjust to going to a high school in the U.S. where the school day is shorter, the people are interested in more localized social interactions rather than a bigger world view of things, and there are no longer new things around each corner.

One of the main staples he found to enjoy almost each day was "hot pot." Much like how Americans eat fondue in a social manner circled around a pot, the Chinese in Chongqing cooked their food in a communal fashion in "hot pot."

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