By  Billy Lee 李名信   April 2020

When Covid-19 Pandemic started to spread in the United States, many universities closed and left a number of foreign students stranded. My young friend, Jackson Barkstrom , from Richmond Virginia was a Third-year student at Brown University ( Providence, Rhode Island ). He learned that two schoolmates on his Brown China Summit Committee were for some reason unable to return to their homes in China.   With consent and even strong encouragement from his Mom ( Tina ), Stepfather ( Brent ), and younger Brother ( Walker – a freshman at Brown) , he warmly offered Homestay to his stranded friends.  They are now six of them living and weathering the pandemic together as one family – not knowing how long this crisis will last.

It was through Homestays that I got to know Jackson’s family. Near the end of my Freshman Year at Yale, Jackson’s Grandfather, David Gregg III, who was on the Freshman soccer team with me, approached me and asked if I would like to room with him the following year. We became roommates for three consecutive undergraduate years 1952-1955.

During those years, I enjoyed Homestays at the Gregg’s home in Darien, Connecticut so many times I can not even remember, but I shall always remember vividly the warm and kind smiles of Mr. Mrs. David Gregg Jr., and the special earnest and attentive look of David’s younger brother, Arthur. I shall always remember the various efforts they made to keep me entertained and to teach me about the American Way of Life.

I grew most deeply attached to Mrs. Gregg whom I affectionately called Virginia. In my mind, she became my American Mother – in many ways closer and more intimate than my natural mother in China.

Our friendship endured, grew deeper, as well as expanded to embrace more members from each side of our families. This was possible because we made efforts to keep in touch despite of David and Virginia’s passing. I think Tina now assumes Virginia’s Leadership role. Indeed, Friendship requires deliberate reaching out and helping each other. It requires true Compassion. In my view, Tina is much like Virginia.

We remain connected with Arthur and Sarah, but became more closely connected with Tina and Jackson who in the middle of his high school years developed a special interest in China and U.S.-China Relations. Four years ago, we introduced Jackson to a 1990 Institute sponsored Project, inviting American High School students to visit China and teach English at a Chinese primary school.  Last year as a representative from Brown’s China Summit he volunteered at the 1990 Institute’s Teachers’ workshop on “CHINA TODAY” -coordinating speakers’ speaking time.

We were delighted to hear that Jackson’s Family so generously offered Homestay to two Chinese students at this very scary time. We wanted to know how they manage. The following is what Jackson wrote to me:

Dear UB, ( Uncle Billy  )

Here are two pictures from Summer and Helen’s stay. The first is Summer and I gave my brother a haircut, and the second is a photo from our dog’s birthday celebration

Summer is from Suzhou went to Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania (fun fact, I played her school in squash!)… she said she feels like family here and loves having two brothers. She gets along very well with our sense of humor. 

Helen is from Shanghai and went to high school in China. We recently got her addicted to our favorite type of ice cream… last week Brent ordered 12 pints of Graeter’s Ice Cream, his favorite from his Cincinnati hometown, and Helen likes it more than any of us. She ordered another 12 pints that came in the mail yesterday, and made a post endorsing it on 知乎… Graeter’s ice cream is about to be Chinese internet-famous!! Her Zhihu account is apparently very popular. 

Helen introduced us to an anime (Japanese animated tv series called Stein’s Gate) about a hilarious mad scientist and his time-traveling adventures… all four of us (Walker, Helen, Summer, me) love it and we’ve been having “anime night” every couple days. Summer, Walker, and I also recently played tennis outside, on our patio, with chairs as the net.

My brother and I taught our friends some funny dance moves (i.e. the “crab rave” and the “floss”) as well as the art of silly walking. We really enjoyed dancing that evening after my brother presented his specialty – Walker’s Portuguese egg tarts- for supper.

Overall it’s been great, we haven’t really been able to leave the house but we’ve been keeping ourselves entertained.



I am so glad that they are extra innovative in finding ways to keep life joyful, but I also know that not knowing the end of the tunnel is extremely stressful. I can imagine the strain in putting up a happy face for your hosts or vise versa every moment of every day. It’s taxing. Homesick emotions sometimes cannot be restrained, and to host two foreign guests in the middle of house moving is definitely not easy. These particular friends of mine, however, will overcome all these challenges, because their COVID-19 Homestay Experience is shared and will forever be remembered with LOVE, COMPASSION, and GRATITUDE.