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.
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.
As the students made their way toward the portrait of Mao hanging from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Anton gestured to a blue-and-white minibus crossing the square. For the past year, police have stationed vans here to haul away members of Falun Gong, the banned spiritual meditation group, who peacefully demonstrate against the government. Sometimes officers escort members, many of them middle-age women, into vehicles. Other times, they punch, kick and drag them by the hair.
This afternoon, the square appears quiet and the police presence seems to make little impression on the students. Cioni pans about the square with his video camera. Ali, who has the chiseled good looks of a young actor, plays hackey sack with other students as Chinese watch in fascination. Nearby, a policeman sits dozing in a van waiting for the next Falun Gong demonstration.
In addition to classes and trips around the country, the program encourages students to get to know ordinary Chinese. The day after the visit to Tiananmen Square, Anton introduced the students to their language tutors and host Chinese students, or "start-up" friends, as he calls them.
The foreign students are supposed to study with their tutors an hour each night before class and hang out with their host students. The initial meetings include moments both painfully awkward and poignant. Some of the Chinese do not speak much English. Most of the foreign students speak no more than a few words of Chinese.
Monica Nguyen, a 20-year-old from St. Louis, met her tutor, "Katy," in a noisy hallway outside a classroom. After a brief greeting, Katy and Monica's host student, "Julian," launched into Chinese.
"Can you understand what we say?" Katy asked.
"No," said Monica, throwing up her hands helplessly, but smiling.
"We can learn each other," Katy said hopefully in broken English.
In the language lab nearby, Cioni, an earnest young man who has already studied a year of Chinese at Loyola, was having a more promising start. He and Joon Ruanjuan, a student at People's University, were speaking the international language of the NBA.
Pro basketball is wildly popular in China. Joon explained how he studied the three-point shooting of Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller to improve his own.
When Cioni shifted the subject to music and his love of Santana, Joon told him how to pick up pirated CDs, which sell on the sidewalks for about $1.20.
"I'd like to see that. Where can I buy some?" Cioni said.
The students have come to China for various reasons. Cioni wants to learn Chinese, which is among the most difficult major languages on the planet. Ali's inspirations include Bruce Lee movies and a recent course in Asian philosophy.
For Loyola College, the motivations lie deeper.
The Jesuits' history in China dates to the missionary Francis Xavier, who died off the coast of Guangdong province in 1552 waiting to be smuggled to the mainland. In the 1600s, the Jesuits gained favor with the imperial court by passing on their knowledge of astronomy. Some of the astronomical instruments they designed still sit atop an ancient observatory about a mile east of Tiananmen Square.
Today, in tune with China's emerging market economy, the Jesuits teach business instead of science. Religion remains a sensitive issue in this officially atheistic country. Students at the Beijing Center are forbidden to invite Chinese friends to Mass at the dorm.
Anton attends the 10 a.m. Sunday service at Beijing's Southern Cathedral, which is approved and regulated by the government. He does so, though, only as a member of the congregation. Anton said he is not in China to save souls, but to teach them.
"We do not evangelize or try to convert," he said. "We come here to educate."