The mysterious characters of Chinese calligraphy caught the attention of Diego Leoni, a rising sixth-grader at North Bethesda Middle School. He took a class in introductory Chinese at his school in Brazil and liked it so much that he asked his father to find another for him when they moved to Maryland.
That's how he ended up at the Maryland Summer Center for Chinese Studies, a state-run program for gifted and talented students. The two-week program started Monday at Meade Middle School in Fort Meade.
Each day last week, Diego practiced writing Chinese script, dancing traditional moves and singing folk songs. Students went to the Freer and Sackler art galleries in Washington and ate with chopsticks at a Chinese restaurant. Diego still picked calligraphy as his favorite exercise.
"It's interesting how the words are," he said. "I want to learn how to write like that."
This is the second year for the program and the first time that Anne Arundel has hosted it. About 40 fourth- through sixth-graders throughout Maryland won spots in this year's day camp, which cost $250 per student. Organizers evaluated students' grades, recommendations, learning styles and answers to essay questions before admitting them.
State officials are trying to capitalize on the growing interest in China as it becomes more of a commercial and political power, said Jen Wang, a co-director of the summer center. Anne Arundel County has jumped on that bandwagon: Five middle schools in Anne Arundel County featured introductory Chinese courses, and two of them - Annapolis and Severna Park middle schools - will offer Chinese I in the fall.
Middle schools that feed into high schools with International Baccalaureate programs are looking to add foreign languages to prepare students. County school officials decided to expand the Chinese offering after positive feedback from parents.
They also thought the Beijing Olympics next month would get students interested in learning Chinese, said Jennifer Hernandez, coordinator of world and classical languages and English as a Second Language classes for Anne Arundel County's public schools.
Hernandez and her colleagues wrote the grant application for the summer center "in lightning speed," she said. She would like to expand the program next year to include a rotating selection of languages, including French, German, Russian and Spanish.
Each day at the Meade program, the students hear from a guest lecturer. Lenny Gan, a Chinese brush painter from Ohio, led a painting class. Kriss Liu, an ESOL teacher at Anne Arundel Community College, came Wednesday to talk about growing up in Taiwan. He told the children how his mother made him eat pig brains because he scored low on an IQ test. It is a Chinese custom, he explained, to compensate for a failing by eating the animal part that corresponds to that deficiency.
"I earned my master's degree, and my mother said, 'See, the pig brain really worked,'" Liu said, clearly enjoying the collective 'ewws' from the audience.
But his lecture on foods focused mainly on the more enjoyable Chinese customs: eating a whole fish to celebrate abundance on Chinese New Year or stealing up to the roof at night during the moon festival to eat moon cake.
During the two weeks, students break into teams to work on a research topic, such as the Great Wall of China. They will present those topics to their parents Friday, then perform the chopstick dance, Hernandez said.
Amber Arrington, who graduated from Curtis Bay Elementary in Baltimore last month, said she has learned the Chinese words for h ello, stand and teacher. She too was enamored with calligraphy.
"I like painting and the symbols that they use," she said.