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Reality Show Sparks Debate

A teenager from a well-off family, who has dropped out school and become addicted to the Internet, swaps lives for seven days with a boy in the remote countryside who has a bath once a year and pocket money of one yuan per month.

This was the first episode of the reality show Life Swap, an adaptation of the UK's Wife Swap, which has sparked a public debate since it became a ratings hit on Hunan Satellite TV.

Wei Cheng, the teenager from a well-off family in Changsha, capital of central China's Hunan Province, had dropped out school after a quarrel with his teacher and spent his days in front of a computer.

He had developed a cold and detached relationship with his parents before swapping lives with Gao Zhanxi, a 14-year-old in Duobu village, Minhe County, northwest China's Qinghai Province, who had to take care his blind father and help plant crops after school.

City kid in countryside

Wei felt frustrated and depressed during first a few days in Gao's home, as he was not accustomed to the traditional brick bed, the food made him ill and he resented the drudgery of working in the fields. He wanted to abandon the program halfway through.

However, one day Wei mentioned he wanted to see the Yellow River, and Gao's father immediately took 20 yuan from his shoe and gave it to him.

"I will pay for you to see the Yellow River. I know it is a small amount, but I have been saving for several years," the father said.
 Wei, who seldom said a word to his own parents, began to cry.

The next day, Wei went to a nearby construction site and took up a temporary job to earn the 20 yuan himself, rather than spend the blind man's savings.

The night before Wei's return to his own family, the blind father sprained his ankle on the road while carrying water for Wei to have a bath. In the drought-hit northwest countryside, it is common to bathe just once a year, but the blind man wanted Wei to go home clean. Wei cried again when he learnt what the man had done.

When he went to say goodbye, Wei knelt in front of his peasant "parents" with tears in his eyes.

After returning home, Wei rekindled the bond with his parents, returned to school and stopped playing on the computer.

Country boy in the city

While Wei Cheng tasted the poor life and hard labor, Gao Zhanxi was enjoying all the luxuries of city life.

Wei's parents took Gao to their home in a BMW. New clothes and a computer awaited him. Gao was also given 200-yuan pocket money on arrival -- a far cry from the one yuan a month he received in the countryside.

He cried seven times the first day when he realized the sharp difference in living standards.

In the following days, Gao spent his money on junk food and books and squandered his time on computer games.

To give Gao a comprehensive understanding of city life, his city "parents" arranged for him to sell newspapers in the morning. He saw vagrants sleeping on the streets and found the job difficult, as he was timid to hawk.

"City life is sometimes hard as well," Gao said after the experience.

Before he left, his city parents bought him a bicycle and encouraged him to study hard.

After Gao returned home, he became silent.

"I missed the city life when I returned. But not now. I will strive to go to university.

"My city parents promised to sponsor my education if I am enrolled at a university, which has given me confidence," he said in an interview with Beijing Youth Daily.

Social debates

When "Life Swap" premiered this month, it was an instant television phenomenon. Housewives reportedly left food burning ontheir stoves because they could not pull themselves away from the television.

Some viewers, after watching Wei Cheng change from rebellious and detached to be life loving and happy, applied to enter their children in the program.

However, others were critical of the way Gao Zhanxi had been forced to return to rural poverty after experiencing seven days of city life.

The South Metropolis Daily carried article warning that Gao could encounter psychological problems from the dramatic changes. It suggested the program-makers should follow Gao's progress as they had a duty to help him if problems emerged.

"Life Swap, as a TV show, pursues entertainment, rather than taking care of a poor boy's feelings. From this angle, the programis unfair on Gao," said viewer Li Fangran, who works with the Agricultural Bank of China.

China Youth Daily carried a commentary saying the city boy, after experiencing the hard rural life, learned to value his privilege, while country boy, after tasting these comforts, started to dream of a city life.

The commentary said the program instilled a unified social value in viewers: city life was better. However, society needed multiple values.

Prof. Zhang Yiwu, social commentator with prestigious Peking University, spoke highly of the program, saying it gave people the opportunity to see life from different perspectives. After tasting a different life, participants could broaden horizons and reach a common understanding with others.

Dai Yi, research fellow of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said childhood experiences influenced a person for life. The two boys had learnt a valuable lesson that would benefit them in later life.

Following stories

The reality show has since aired two more episodes.

Episode two was about an English high school teacher who switched lives for seven days with her 18-year-old daughter who hated studying and resented her mother. The mother and daughter relationship is well improved after the life exchange.

Episode three was about a former mayor of Xiangtan city, in Hunan Province, who swapped with an official from a flood-hit village.

(Xinhua News Agency September 23, 2006)

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