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Exchange Student Family Welcomes Chinese Teen
Exchange student mom Roberta Nelson, left, Dingyi Zhang, and dad Richard Nelson display a gift of a Chinese Poem that Zhang brought to the Riverbank couple from China that was hand stitched by his aunt. - photo by VIRGINIA STILL/THE NEWS


A whole new world has opened up for one Riverbank family and their new – although temporary – houseguest.

World Heritage Representative Carol Berger lined up Roberta and Richard Nelson with an exchange student from China named Dingyi Zhang, who likes to be called ‘Must’ and is currently attending Riverbank High School.

Back in China, Zhang’s English teacher nicknamed him Must which fits him since his parents named him Dingyi which means “I must be the first one.”

Zhang will complete his senior year at RHS, graduate, and then will return home to China at the end of May.

This experience is a “first” for both the Nelsons and the teenaged Zhang. The Nelsons are now retired and have been living in Riverbank for over 20 years.

“This is my first time in the exchange program,” said Zhang. “But fortunately I met them so I don’t feel very homesick.”

The local couple learned about the program from an ad in The Riverbank News about the World Heritage,, program and decided to look into it.

A long time ago they discussed hosting an exchange student but they were not ready for it since they were working and had other things going on.

This time they were ready and after finding out that Berger, the exchange program representative, lived around the corner, they felt more comfortable taking on the experience.

The Nelsons went online and started looking at all the students that were looking for host families and at first they didn’t see Zhang, but as fate would have it the other students were already taken. So finally on another search they saw Zhang.

Since the Nelsons are friends with the proprietors of Grand China restaurant in Riverbank and they have known Zach, the owner’s son for several years, they figured it would be a fit since Zach would be able to relate to Zhang.

Everything worked out and Zhang arrived at the Sacramento airport on Aug. 20. The Nelsons picked him up and had a special dinner planned at Grand China where Berger, her daughter, husband, Zach and the Grand China family had a big table set up to welcome Zhang.

The next day the Nelsons took Zhang to Riverbank High School to get him registered so he could get started and a group of five students gave him a tour of the school.

“Well, you know the school they said was small, really small but people there are quite friendly and they have all sorts of classes and teachers are interesting and the way they teach, I like it,” said Zhang. “It is different from ours.”

Zhang said in fact, his school in China has about 5,000 students, well above the number attending RHS.

That is something that Roberta was worried about, whether the students would be able to relate to him and they all have greeted him with open arms.

“Yeah, people just hug me and I don’t even know why,” said Zhang. “I hug back, that’s really warm.”

The high school students in China also live on the school campus in dorms and the school selects the classes for the students. The students do not select their own classes in China. There are approximately 50 students in a classroom in China and the students stay in the same classroom for the entire school day, while the teachers change classrooms with each subject that they are teaching.

“I think I prefer the way of the schools in the states,” stated Zhang. “It is better to have different classmates in different classes because it will broaden your social or relationships.

“It is always good to make more friends and well we are in a small school like Riverbank High you have opportunities to make friends with everybody and that’s awesome.”

Zhang went to a foreign language elementary school instead of a common elementary school and started learning English at age 5 in the first grade.

The Nelsons were also concerned with the variety of food that they would have for Zhang. They were unsure whether he would like their food or not. So far, Zhang has had pizza, Japanese noodles, Applebee’s, Grand China, and Mexican food.

“I think I eat everything,” stated Zhang. “And here is a Mexican food place called La Parilla, it is very good, I like the sauce, guacamole.”

Friday, Aug. 22 was Zhang’s first day of school here in the states and since then he has been changed from his Algebra II class to an AP Calculus class, already moving on to higher level courses.

After graduation, Zhang would like to further his education here in the states and will be applying to several universities. He is interested in becoming a material engineer so with that type of career Zhang needs to take several math classes and get good math grades.

Mr. Nelson took Zhang to his first football game on Friday night to teach him the rules of the game and the Bruins played the Denair Coyotes and although they did not want win, Zhang has an interest in playing football.

The time that Zhang has had in Riverbank has only been a few weeks but the experience for both parties has already been amazing.

“It has been really quite an experience already and we have learned a lot and he has learned a lot,” said Mr. Nelson.

The couple said they are looking forward to the experience and plan to take Zhang to visit their family during the holidays.