By Bob Skolnik
Hauser Junior High School seventh-grader Chase Zidlicky spent nearly four months last year living and going to school in the South American country of Paraguay. The 12 year old lived in the city of Concepcion, approximately 4,900 miles away from his home in Riverside, from late August until mid-December 2019.
"My mom kind of got me into it," Chase Zidlicky told the Landmark in a recent interview at his home.
Tom and Susan Zidlicky, Chase's parents, employed two au pairs from Paraguay when Chase was younger. The family stayed in particularly close touch with their first au pair, Jazmin Desvars, who worked for the Zidlickys for two years, from when Chase was about 3 to when he was 5.
Desvars' grandparents lived in Concepcion and taught English there. Susan Zidlicky said she believes in the benefits of travel, having been to 41 countries herself, often doing mission work. In 2018, she began talking with her former au pair about Chase going to live for a time in Paraguay. Desvars put her in contact with her grandparents, and they found a family that was willing to host Chase, who is the oldest of four boys in the Zidlicky family
In November 2018, Susan and Chase went to Concepcion for a week to meet the host family and check out the town and the school Chase would attend. Since Chase had never studied Spanish, his mother hired a tutor to teach him some Spanish twice a week for four or five months in the first half of 2019.
In late August, Susan took her son to Concepcion and helped him get settled in his host family's home and enrolled in the San Jose Catholic School.
It was a big adjustment since school was in Spanish, except for the English class.
"I was kind of nervous, with talking and all that, but besides that I was fine," Chase said.
Chase's host family had a son, named Ale, who was also 12, in addition to a 10-year-old daughter and infant son.
They were a comfortable upper-middle-class household: the father is a doctor, the mother a nutritionist, and the family had a maid. Chase had his own bedroom.
School was only in the morning from 7 to 11 a.m. It was tough at first having almost all his instruction in Spanish.
"At first, I was clueless," Chase said.
But he picked up more and more Spanish, with the help of a private tutor three hours a day, and Chase quickly fit in.
"At the end of it, I could understand what they were saying," Chase said.
He and the other boys in his class played soccer in recess. Every afternoon, Chase played and practiced with a basketball team.
His class had 37 students, but wasn't very different from what he was used to here. Chase said in Paraguay they were a little behind him in math (he takes advanced math at Hauser), but otherwise school was not all that different.
There was less technology. Chase said the school had only about 30 older computers. Kids also had fewer video games, and cellphones were less common. Other than that, school and student behavior was not much different from what Chase was used to here.
"I'd say it was very similar," Chase said.
Chase stayed in touch with his family in Riverside by texting and a video phone call about once a week. How much did he miss his family?
"Not much," Chase said.
His father Tom visited him for about a week in November.
Concepcion is a city of about 75,000 in north central Paraguay, but life was more rustic. Chase said that there was only one paved road and only two stop lights. Other roads were dirt or gravel. Many people rode motor scooters to get around.
"There were a lot of animals in the street, like dogs or horses and cows," Chase said.
Chase made five close friends and got along well with his host family, who cried when he left them in December.
"He's a pretty independent kid," Susan Zidlicky said.
Lunch was the main meal of the day and Chase liked the food a lot, especially lomito sandwiches and the empanadas they sold at his school. When people ate hamburgers, they typically put a slice of ham and a fried egg on top of the beef.
"There's a lot of meat, like, a lot," Chase said.
A highlight of his stay was a weekend school trip to Iguazu Falls, the largest waterfalls in the world, an eight-hour bus trip away in Brazil.
Chase enjoys traveling. At age 12 he has already been to 13 countries.
"I believe that travel is very important for education." Susan Zidlicky said. "I encouraged him to do this with a young mind, just kind of opened his eyes to see the world."
Since he has been back home, Chase's parents said that he seems more interested in learning other languages and about other cultures.
Chase might have stayed in Paraguay for the entire year, but as a pitcher, third baseman and outfielder, didn't want to miss the baseball season.
"I think he would stay longer except for baseball," Susan Zidlicky said.
Other than catching up in math, Chase's transition back to Hauser has been easy. And he is ahead of most other kids in his Spanish class, which is taught for the first time at Hauser in seventh grade.
His Spanish teacher at Hauser, Elizabeth Olympio, said learning a language via immersion, as in Chase's case is the best way to learn a language.
"Through immersion, people learn language in a real-life context and use the language in meaningful ways for practical purposes such as connecting with people, getting directions, and ordering food," Olympio said in an email. "Immersion is also such a rich experience because it integrates language with culture."