Some come for a taste of home, some to brush up on hard-won language skills, still others to learn a tongue as exotic here as it is common half a world away.
For members of the Chinese Conversation Corner, who gather once a month at the Peking Garden Restaurant in Ellicott City, the 6-year-old group offers a rare opportunity to speak the Mandarin dialect of Chinese in Howard County, where ethnic Chinese residents make up less than 1 percent of the population.
"I've been struggling to maintain the language," said Joanne Miliner, an Owings Mills resident who visited China in 1990 and 1992 as a student. "I find a lot of people here at the same level."
The group, which has about 40 members -- including native-born Chinese, Chinese-Americans and others -- was begun in 1990 by Tom Owens, owner of the Cider Mill in Elkridge, who has traveled to China frequently on business and whose wife was born in China.
"Originally, I was planning to relearn Spanish when I realized that one-quarter of the world's population speaks Chinese, so I decided I would try that," said Mr. Owens, who five years ago married Zhen Zhen Wang, a cardiologist from Beijing.
Mr. Owens' introduction to the Chinese language came in 1987 through the private, nonprofit Chinese Language School of Columbia, which operates out of Howard High School on Sundays. The school also includes classes for children in painting, martial arts and music.
The school inspired him to start an informal conversation group where members could practice outside the classroom.
"I had known about the English-speaking conversation corners in China, where they met on street corners and in parks," said Mr. Owens, who ultimately invited his language teacher, 75-year-old Ernest Yuan, to take part in the conversation group.
On a recent Saturday, 17 members gathered for lunch and small talk while Mr. Yuan, a Chinese native who has lived in the United States for about 30 years, helped new members introduce themselves in Mandarin.
Their reasons for attending the meetings are as diverse as the members themselves.
Columbia residents Diane Masters, 45, and her 19-year-old daughter, Liz Maxson, acknowledged they are a bit "homesick" for Taiwan, where they had lived for four years.
"We suffered culture shock when we arrived here, and we wanted to keep up our Chinese," said Mrs. Masters, who teaches English as a second language at Howard Community College; she has been a member of the group for one year.
Al McLaine, a 50-year-old education service manager for a computer firm who studied Chinese and Asian history in the 1960s, joined the group when it began. He wanted to use language skills that had stagnated over 25 years.
"I enjoy the camaraderie of the group," said Mr. McLaine, a Columbia resident. "It's a chance to not let the language slip entirely."
And Christina Wu, 20, a student at the University of Maryland, was looking for a way to keep up her conversational skills.
"I moved to Columbia, away from my family who live in Rockville, and I don't get a chance to practice the language," she said. Ms. Wu's father is from mainland China; her mother is from Taiwan.
The conversation group provides an important cultural link for the local Chinese population. Mandarin, the north Chinese dialect used by the group, is China's official tongue; the Cantonese dialect predominates in southern China and Hong Kong.
According to the 1990 U.S. census, about 1,900 ethnic Chinese live in Howard County.
"The benefit of the Conversation Corner is that a language can be a window on a culture," said Pat Hatch, director of advocacy and community education for the Foreign-Born Information & Referral Network Inc. (FIRN), a private nonprofit agency.
"It helps people appreciate the nuances of another culture, and people can get a glimpse of the richness of one language."
Miss Miliner plans to keep participating in the group.
"It's nice to make friends and to see what the group is doing today," she said. "It's great to be able to bring our own Chinese skills back."
The Chinese Conversation Corner will meet at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Peking Garden Restaurant, 9445 U.S. 40, Ellicott City. For more information, call Tom Owens, (410) 788-7500, or Ernest Yuan, (410) 788-5556.