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They walked through ornate gardens, saw rolling pastures where sheep and horses roamed and visited centuries-old churches. Every day, they dined on tea with scones, jam and heavy cream with the locals and learned about their traditions.
Their recent trip to Taunton in Somerset County, England, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for George Wong-Chong and Mari-Lou Wong-Chong of Holden Beach, mainly because it wasn’t a typical sightseeing excursion.
The Shallotte Rotary Club members were participants in the Rotary International Friendship Exchange program, the international travel program for Rotarians and their families.
Through the program, participants like the Wong-Chongs experience other cultures and build friendships by staying in the homes of Rotarians abroad. The goal is to develop understanding between the cultures and relationships that could lead to international Rotary projects.
It was the first trip the retired couple had ever taken to England, and they say spending time with families and learning the day-to-day culture was much better than a run-of-the-mill vacation in a hotel.
Three English families in Taunton volunteered to take the couple in. They spent three days with one family, one day with a second and the rest of the week with a third.
“One of the purposes of this exchange program is being with a family and experience what it’s like—the culture, the history the people—and to build friendships,” Mari-Lou explained. “I made friends I’ll have forever.”
Every day, the couple and their host families went to different places—including a service at an Anglican church on a hillside that had been around since the 1500s.
“There were six people there—including us,” George recalled.
Taunton is mainly an agricultural area where the biggest industries are sheep-herding and cider-making.
In addition to learning the local culture, the Wong-Chongs participated in Rotary club events including a fundraising sale and a visit to a local club meeting, where Mari-Lou gave a presentation about life in Brunswick County.
Mari-Lou decided to make the trip after she was given the duty of promoting the exchange program as a district officer with Rotary.
“I’m out there preaching the program, I should know what it’s about,” she said. “I would highly recommend it.”
Promoting understanding across cultures is important to the Wong-Chongs. George’s parents were born in China, and he grew up in the West Indies. Mari-Lou is originally from the Philippines.
Since moving to Brunswick County from Pittsburgh two years ago, the couple has been involved in various community projects including the Intercultural Festival at Brunswick Community College, the goal of which is to bridge cultural gaps.
“Brunswick County is growing,” Mari-Lou said. “You’d be surprised at how many people from other cultures are here.”
Bridging those gaps is why she is interested in promoting the Friendship Exchange Program. Participants have to pay their own expenses, but the Wong-Chongs say it’s worth it.
“If you’re new in Rotary, this is a good way to experience how universal the organization is,” Mari-Lou said. “It’s another way of learning to serve others.”
sarah shew wilson is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email@example.com.