After almost two months in China, 27 high school students from Baltimore County's public schools returned home July 17 with new friendships, souvenirs and tales of their adventures as strangers in a strange land.
"It was so cool," said Lutherville resident Jordan Seibert, 17, a rising senior at Dulaney High School. "I didn't want to come home."
When she found out about the trip, Seibert felt compelled to participate.
"You hear about it and you just think, 'I wanna go, I wanna go'," Seibert said. "There's something about it."
Seeing the Great Wall of China was one of Seibert's favorite parts of the trip, she said. She even kept a small, worn fragment of brick that had long ago crumbled from the ancient structure.
Lutherville resident Natalie Walker, 17, also a rising senior at Dulaney High, said one of her initial reasons for going on the trip was that participation in an exchange program might make her college applications look better.
Her other motivation was "to become a better person," Walker said. That is, a more well-rounded person, with greater perspective.
"When you go to China, you learn about another culture, and some of it's shocking," she said.
The students left for China on May 25 and stayed with host families in Xi'an, where they also attended school alongside their Chinese counterparts.
Earlier in the year, students from Xi'an traveled to the U.S. and stayed with Baltimore County families and students. The local students' trip to China was the second half of an exchange program that's been running for about five years, according to Peggy Johnson, director of the county schools' Office of World Languages.
The program has steadily grown in popularity. In its first year, 2007, three students and one teacher traveled to China.
This year the program took three teachers and 27 students to China. Dulaney, Hereford, Owings Mills, Patapsco, Perry Hall, Randallstown and Towson high schools participated in the exchange.
Johnson credits school Superintendent Joe Hairston with making the exchange program a success.
"He was the one who started this program and provided it with initiative," Johnson said.
She thinks the program is important because it provides the students with tools they need for the future and for a shrinking world.
"They're competing globally," Johnson said of the students.
"They need to understand that cultures are different, but people are the same," Johnson said.
Each student had to come up with $2,300 for the trip to China. That pretty much covered only the plane ticket, though.
Any spending money had to be provided by the individual students and their families. The host families took care of food and kept a roof over the students' heads.
Now that they've returned from China, the students seem less interested in souvenirs than in their experiences.
One of the most astonishing things Seibert saw took place during the group's trip to Mount Hua, also known as Hua Shan.
The Chinese have constructed steep stairs up the sides of the 7,000-foot mountain. There, the American students saw men walking up the stairs with sticks over their shoulders, upon which they carried food and water.
"These are old guys too," Walker said.
"The one we asked said he was 78," Seibert said.
One elderly man was playing a flute while he climbed with the heavy load. Walker thought the paths to the mountaintop were scary, but Seibert found the effort rewarding.
"It was worth it when you got to the top — it was beautiful," she said.
The students also enjoyed their host families and fellow students.
"The kids were so great," said Cori Perloski, 14, a rising sophomore at Hereford High. Cori, however, realized early on that one must learn how to say "no."
"The first week (in China) you realize you have to be really aggressive when you don't want food because they will keep feeding you for hours and hours," Cori said of her host family.
"You learn how to say, 'I don't want' in Chinese really quickly," she said.
The Chinese students were generous as well. Walker learned that when she complimented one of her Chinese counterparts on a bow she had in her hair.
"I said, 'Oh, I like your bow,' and she took it off and gave it to me," Walker said. "Lots of gift-giving."
Seibert had the same experience.
While in the city with her host family, she happened to look at a table of purses shaped like animals. Her host mother bought one for her when she wasn't looking — a pink poodle purse.
Learning to say "I don't want" was important not only in dealing with the kindness of host families and Chinese students.
Street sellers were aggressive as well, attempting to pull the students by the arm back to their tent or table to try to sell them something, the girls said, amused.
Chinese households were, at first, a little surprising to the American students.
The beds — bamboo mattresses with a bedspread on top as a mattress — "are like rocks," Seibert said.
"I was lucky," Cori said. "I had a western bed."
The pillows were unfamiliar as well. When Seibert first arrived at her host family's home, she was given a tour of the house and she noticed a funny pillow in the master bedroom. Essentially, it was a bunch of small stones strung together with an indent for a person's head.
She was later told it was her host father's pillow, and that this was not unusual.
"My pillow was a bag of rice," Walker said.
One of the most surprising things Cori experienced in China was that people always wanted to take photos of the group of Americans. If the students were taking a group photo at a shrine or some other landmark, random people passing on the street would stop and take their photos.
"It was funny — we went to the Great Wall and we got photographed," Cori said, adding that there were plenty of other foreigners at the site.
It was the differences in the day-to-day living that were the most surprising for the students. In fact, the scariest thing about the trip was one of the most familiar.
"Crossing the street," Cori said. "Traffic … going in every direction."
"There was no such thing as a stop sign," Seibert added. "And stoplights were like suggestions."
School in China is different too.
"It was 12 hours," Walker said of the school day.
"Then, on Friday, the principal will say, 'Oh, you have school on Saturday,' " Seibert said.
Cori's favorite part of the trip was just before the American students left Xi'an to visit Beijing toward the end of their stay. Her host father wanted to show her more of the countryside, so he took Cori on a tour of other provinces. When they reached the desert out west, Cori fell in love with it.
"It's like the most beautiful thing ever," Cori said. "You just want to stay there."
She even rode a camel in China's desert.
Cori has studied Chinese for three years.
"I love Chinese," she said.
Not all the American students were so proficient, and even Cori often struggled with the language.
At times, the American students relied on rudimentary sign language to communicate, but Walker noted something she'd learned on the trip that Johnson would probably find satisfying.
While cultures and languages differ, "a smile is universal," Walker said.
To read and see more of the Baltimore County students' visit to China, visit their travel blog online at http://www.travelpod.com/members/bcpschina.