Love of Chinese language leads 8 City College students to land of their dreams Visit rich in culture --and culture shock

August 11, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

XIAMEN, China -- After three years studying Chinese at Baltimore's City College, an endless trans-Pacific flight, a rough voyage through the tail end of a typhoon from Hong Kong and three weeks of living in this sometimes strange land, Vhonda Williams had only one thing on her mind.

"I want pizza -- the real thing," the 17-year-old from West Baltimore declared from behind a desk in one of the dusty, sparely appointed classrooms at Xiamen's No. 1 Middle School.

The absence of pizza and other familiar touchstones was only a part of the shock, cultural and otherwise, experienced by Vhonda and most of the seven other Baltimore public high school students during almost a month working to polish their Chinese language skills here.

The new, occasionally uncomfortable experiences began immediately upon their landing. The hot and tired teen-agers were quickly overwhelmed by the sudden press of Chinese street life and the curious, penetrating stares that the presence of foreigners still draws in smaller Chinese cities such as Xiamen.

And fresh challenges continued to crop up daily in innumerable ways, from coping with China's relatively low living standard to venturing by themselves through this city's teeming markets, putting to use their hard-gained, still-limited knowledge of the difficult Chinese tongue.

If travel ultimately is about self-discovery, the eight students, who arrive home tomorrow, may well have learned as much about themselves as about China itself.

For some of them, the main lesson boiled down to the old saw: East, west, home's best.

"We were told that this trip was to be a golden opportunity," said 16-year-old Pamela Massey, who will be a senior at Western Senior High School this fall. "But it's an experience that makes you really appreciate what you have at home -- I even miss my enemies.

"It takes a lot of strength being here," she sighed, "too much strength."

But most of the Baltimore students seemed to take in stride what was presented by Xiamen and to look a bit beyond their typically grimy Chinese hotel accommodations, meals heavy on rice and grease, and the other, more obvious discomforts of life ++ in China for many Westerners.

"I'm just taking it as it comes," said Essence Pierce, 16, who attends Western High School. "I just enjoy having new experiences. I knew it wouldn't be like America -- I even like the food."

Added Eric Gooden, a 17-year-old senior at City: "It's been weird, it's been good, it's been OK. I've been surprised by how simple the people live here, but I kind of like the way this place comes at you. Everything seems so peaceful."

One of the more unusual aspects of life in Xiamen for the seven of the eight students who are black was the overbearingly intense interest that the color of their skin stirred during their forays through the city's narrow, packed streets.

"It's kind of hard getting used to everyone staring and pointing at you," Eric said. "We walk down the street and hear people say, 'hei ren,' which means black people, or 'hen hei ren,' which means very black people. They're so curious about us, it's kind of funny."

Such informal, but unforgettable Chinese drills -- lessons in international understanding -- probably were the very point of the program developed by Baltimore's Abell Foundation a few years ago. It pays for overseas trips for city high school students who complete three years of studies in Chinese, Russian and Japanese, all languages not previously taught in the Baltimore schools.

About 400 students now tackle the three difficult languages at City, Western and the Polytechnic Institute, according to Delegate Anne S. Perkins, D-Baltimore, who was one of the students' chaperones in China. The eight students who journeyed to Xiamen were among 15 eligible for the trip after surviving three years of trying to get their ears accustomed to the up-and-down tones of Chinese.

Xiamen, about 300 miles north of Hong Kong on the south China coast, was chosen for the language program because it has been a sister city of Baltimore since 1985. Also, Baltimore-area teachers have been coming to the city's No. 1 Middle School for the last four summers to instruct Chinese teachers of English under a separate program founded by Henry Topper, the father of Michael Topper, one of the Baltimore students in the exchange program this year.

Parallel to the Baltimore students' daily language classes and courses in music and art also taught in Chinese, about 20 Xiamen students received English lessons from two of the American teen-agers' chaperones. In the afternoon, the Baltimore and Xiamen high schoolers practiced Chinese martial arts and American sports together and, slowly but surely, learned about each other's very different lives.

The Chinese students took their new friends from Baltimore to a local disco, where the Americans taught them the "electric slide," a popular dance these days. And the Americans learned how their Chinese peers like to have a good time.

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