Hero photograph
Tian with the family dog on the farm
Photo by Waikato News

International High School students find home away from home during lockdown

St Paul's Collegiate School —

When the most recent Covid-19 lockdown was announced, almost everyone in New Zealand knew what to do - except Jeongguk Son, 12, from St Peter's School and Tian Subsompon, 14, from St Paul's Collegiate School.

The two boys are among 51 international students living on the campuses of the two schools, but during lockdown they were no longer able to live on the school's premises. Instead, St Peter's and St Paul's had to find host families for all international students.

Jeongguk is from South Korea and Tian is from Thailand. They both came to New Zealand for high school in 2020, just before the first lockdown.

Jeongguk says: "During the first month, I wanted to go home. I felt alone," he says.

Then he became friends with Kobe Taiapa, 12, from Ohope.

"With Kobe it is all easier. He didn't make me miss my family as much."

Kobe's mum Lisa says: "Me and my husband knew that Jeongguk couldn't go home, so when we heard about the lockdown ... we offered to take him. It was a no-brainer. Kobe doesn't have any siblings... [and] was struggling with the challenges of lockdown last year."

Kobe says: "Lockdown was a struggle, but having 'Jokes' (Jeongguk's nickname) with me made it easier."

Lisa says not having anyone close to Kobe's age at home meant he had no one on his level who knew how he was feeling.

"So we didn't only do it for Jeongguk, but also for Kobe. We got to benefit from this experience as much as hopefully he did."

To the Taiapas, Jeongguk is not a visitor, but quickly became part of the family.

"Everyone close to our family has a nickname. And because Jeongguk is always smiling and laughing, my husband named him Jokes."

During lockdown, the two boys had a blast spending time at the family's home in Ohope together.

Lisa says: "They both had lots of energy. My husband was teaching them how to box and Kobe and Jeongguk played football - which was a good outlet for all the energy. And the boys did lots of tech playing like Minecraft.

"We tried to minimise the tech time, but tech is how they engage and communicate with their peers."

Kobe says: "We went to the beach a lot and did a school project together - filming our lockdown experience."

Jeongguk enjoys going to school in New Zealand.

"I get the chance to try more topics in school and there are more sport options. In Korea I didn't have a lot of free time and couldn't do sports. I had to do a lot of school work."

In the future he plans to not only finish high school in New Zealand.

"I want to stay in New Zealand and go to university here, but that costs a lot of money, so I don't know whether I will be able to do that."

If not, Kobe already said he would love to visit Jeongguk in Korea.

Jeongguk says: "My mum already invited him."

Tian had a similar experience to Jeongguk. Shortly after coming over to New Zealand, his grandma died and he was very homesick, so bad that he even thought of returning to Thailand.

Meeting Josh Boswell, 14, and living with his family changed Tian's mind and now wants to at least finish his NCEA in New Zealand.

Being mates with Josh since last year, Tian already stayed with him, Josh's sister Hannah and parents Robyn and Greg in June 2020, so when the latest lockdown was announced it was obvious where he would stay.

Tian says: "I was just disappointed because I planned to go to a football competition the next day that was cancelled due to the lockdown."

Josh's mum Robyn says: "After the first lockdown, my son came to me saying 'mum, Tian has nowhere to go'. and I said 'of course he does, bring him home'. ... We are living on a dairy farm in Morrinsville ... and when my children went to Southwell, we already had numerous international students staying with us before short-term."

Living on a farm was new to Tian and he had lots of "interesting" experiences, as he says. "I love feeding the calves and the Boswells taught me how to ride a motorbike!"

He also helped bringing cows in and gave milking a go - he even witnessed a calf being born.

Robyn says: "He loves farm milk straight from the vat. When Tian stays with us, we go through two litres a day."

Josh enjoys Tian's company. "Having Tian as a brother is better than having a sister: it's pretty cool to have someone to do something with. We play football together sometimes and help on the farm."

Robyn says Tian is not treated as a guest.

"He is a family member ... He became my third child and is treated as such. And he gives back just as much. I thought, if the journey that Tian and his family are on was either Joshua or Hannah, how would I like them to be integrated, respected, cared for and supported.

"Therefore this is the easy answer, I would like them to be loved and nurtured as I love and nurture them."

St Paul's director of international students Helen Richardson says the school is relying on the generosity of host families.

"They are our backbone. When you are only 14, it's hard not seeing your family for two years. It's important to give our students a caring family environment."

By: Danielle Zollickhofer

Multimedia journalist, Waikato News