Getting to know China

Education: For some Loyola College students, an intensive study-abroad program blends academics and China adventure.

September 01, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - When Omar Ali told people back home that he planned to spend his junior year of college in Beijing instead of Baltimore, many were perplexed. France or Italy they might have understood, but China?

Students at Sparrow's Point High School asked his mother, Vicki, an art teacher, why she would allow him to go so far away. Some confused China with other nations.

"Some people were talking about canings. They were thinking about Singapore," said Ali, referring to the 1994 case of an American teen punished with a rattan cane for committing vandalism. "Very few people in America know anything about China."

Ali, a junior at Baltimore's Loyola College, will spend the next two semesters trying to change that.

Ali grew up in Dundalk and graduated in 1998 from the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson. He arrived here a few weeks ago to participate in an intensive academic program sponsored by Loyola and 25 other Jesuit colleges in America.

The ambitious curriculum includes 2 1/2 hours of Chinese language class four mornings a week as well as courses in Chinese philosophy, ethics, cinema and martial arts. The Beijing Center for Language and Cultural Studies, as the program is called, also arranges trips that blend education and adventure.

This weekend, Ali and his classmates will embark on a 17-day train trek along the Silk Road - the ancient trade route linking East and West - which will include horseback riding with Tibetan nomads and sledding the mountainous dunes of the Gobi Desert.

American students have flocked to study-abroad programs in Europe for decades, but only started coming to China in the early 1980s after the country opened to the world. Today, academic, language and travel programs cater to thousands of foreign students drawn here each year by China's complex history and rising international profile.

With the Cold War long over and Russia in decline, China is emerging as the nation with which the United States has arguably the most challenging and important relationship. Collectively, the various programs are working to develop a generation of foreign students with enough firsthand experience to make sense of this complicated country.

"The United States really needs people who know China," said the Rev. Ron Anton, the program's international director, as he welcomed this semester's class of 25 students last month.

Anton, 52, grew up in Baltimore and has extensive experience in Asia. He has worked with lepers in India and launched a study-abroad program in Bangkok, Thailand, for Loyola in 1989.

Anton first came to China as a tourist 16 years ago. After serving as dean of Loyola's Sellinger School of Business from 1990 to 1995, he began traveling regularly to Beijing to develop an M.B.A. program. Loyola and the other Jesuit schools created the program to educate Chinese in Western business practices. The colleges established the Beijing Center to teach American students about China.

So `normal'

Although Omar Ali has seen only Beijing - most of China's more than 1.2 billion people still live in the countryside - the capital seems much better than people in Baltimore had imagined.

The young Chinese students he has met all have e-mail addresses. His dorm sits high atop a new hotel and conference center on the campus of the Beijing Institute of Technology. His room is considerably better than many on campus back in Baltimore. Up the street, in Beijing's equivalent of Silicon Valley, there's even a Starbucks.

In fact, China's capital seems so "normal," students say with a bit of disappointment - that some pine for culture shock.

"I wasn't as shocked as I thought I would be," said Joe Cioni, a Loyola junior from Cumberland, as he sat on a bus with the group headed toward Tiananmen Square. While his dorm is being readied, he said, "We are staying at the Friendship Hotel. They have plumbing and hot water."

As the students arrive on the square, a vast expanse of concrete in the center of the capital, it becomes clear that as modern as Beijing might seem, it does not have all the advantages of home, such as free speech. The group walks past a large building shrouded in construction netting. It is Mao Tse-tung's mausoleum, the final resting place of the Great Helmsman.

"Someday when you have a bit of time, you can go see Mao's body all waxed up," Anton suggests.

"Is Mao's body really in there?" asks Ali, sounding like a kid listening to a ghost story.

"So they say," responds Anton, who, like many foreign tourists, wears sandals, shorts and shades.

On a daily basis, people in Beijing and much of the country lead lives largely free from government interference and repression. Those few who dare to take on the regime directly, though, often suffer severe punishment.

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