When 9-year-old Alison Woods of Ellicott City sat down at her computer eight months ago and wrote a letter to someone, somewhere in China, she had no idea whether the letter would ever arrive or who would receive it.
Last week, she found out.
In November 1990, Alison and 11 other third-graders at Waverly Elementary School responded to an offer from their teacher, Darlene G. Thomas. If any of her students wanted to write to children in China, Thomas' parents, Clarence and Betty Garrett, would try to find recipients for the letters during a vacation trip that month.
Mr. and Mrs. Garrett gave the letters to their tour guide, whose sister taught at the primary school Beijing Zhong Guan Cun. Months passed, the school year ended, and then, early this month, Thomas received a packet of letters from children at the school.
The teacher delivered the Chinese children's letters to seven of her former students and is holding the letters for the others she has not been able to contact.
Alison's letter was from Wen Li, 11, a fifth-grade student at the school. Li wrote that she likes singing and drawing and small animals andher favorite colors are red and yellow.
"You are my good friend from U.S.A.," Li's letter concluded.
Thomas said her students learned a great deal about Arab culture by writing to service personnel inSaudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war. "Children really do respond to this kind of thing more than adults, because they're pure. They don't get hung up on the political thing," she said.
Alison said she volunteered to write a letter to someone in China because "I like to receive mail."
In her first letter, she introduced herself and her pets, Fox the dog, Tigger the cat and Tap the frog. She wrote that she likes sports, reading, playing with friends and playing Carmen Sandiego games on the computer.
The Waverly students sent school pictures with their letters. The Chinese students replied with snapshots that revealed such exotic backgrounds as a pagoda. One, Zheng DingDing, drew two hearts joined by a rainbow, representing China and the United States.
Eleven-year-old Yang Fu, a sports fan and computer buff, sent a photo of himself in front of the Asia Sports Village to Billy Simpson, 9, of Ellicott City.
Billy said he plans to writeback and tell Fu that he likes basketball and Nintendo and that "Maryland is real nice and we have something like the sports village at the Inner Harbor (Baltimore Arena and the new baseball stadium)."
Waverly student Lakshmi Guruswamy, 9, said she decided to volunteer for the pen pal exchange because "usually I don't get letters back, butI thought (this time) I might."
Lakshmi received a reply from 11-year-old Ge Yan, who wrote that the 41 students in her class "are allfriends." Yan said she likes writing, painting, stamp collecting andeating cream chocolates. Her favorite TV show is "The World of Animals."
"I wait for your letter. Let's learn from each other," Yan concluded.
Lakshmi said she will write a return letter that will describe the books she likes and her plans to study gymnastics and classical dance.
One of the Waverly students sent pictures of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with his initial letter and got a Chinese cartoon back. One Chinese student sent a wish for "you to be (in) good health and everything lucky."
Thomas, who plans to continue the exchange next year with her new class, said she warned the American children against making comparisons in their letters that would sound like snobbery. "I wanted them to respect differences," she said.
The teacher suspects that the Chinese children's letters had to go through an official review before they were released into the mail. Thomas made the guess because both the children's letters and an accompanying letter from their English teacher bore March dates but did not arrive until four months later.
But the letter from teacher Yang Feng indicated that her students are looking forward to continuing the penpal program.
"Most of the classes are learning English and the pupils are very much interested in the course they are following. They are happy to write to your pupils often and look forward to hearing from you," Yang wrote.
Thomas plans to reply with a letter and small gifts: American and Maryland flags, a Baltimore Orioles sticker anda bookmark bearing drawings of bluebirds to reflect Thomas' interestin birds.