LEE, Maine — Silver Lake looked warm and inviting, the sun was bright and almost directly overhead, and dozens of Chinese students were frolicking in the water, but 14-year-old Jie Jun Lu was content to sit at a picnic bench, watching.
“I hate water,” he explained with a gentle smile.
By the time Lu and his classmates and teachers return to Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, on July 31, they will have experienced a lot more than the waters of Maine, Lee Academy Headmaster Bruce Lindberg says.
The 52 eighth- and ninth-graders have been enrolled in a special Lee Academy program since July 8, having arrived at Boston’s Logan International Airport the night before. They are taking lessons in English as a second language and learning about American culture. The students and Chinese educators are staying in the school’s dormitories.
The summer program might be the first at a Maine high school that helps prepare Chinese students to study at American high schools, and Lindberg hopes that some of the students enrolled at Lee will return to Lee or other Maine high schools as international students studying for yearlong stints.
For the students and their teachers, America is as vast and puzzling a place as China would be to most Americans, Lindberg said, with the Lee staff and some of the four Chinese educators who are chaperoning the trip explaining things that most Americans would take for granted.
Often neither the Chinese nor the Americans can anticipate when cultural differences will emerge and explanations will be necessary.
“I will give you an example,” Lindberg said. “On the way back from the airport, we stopped at a rest stop in Kennebunk, and it was the first time any of them had used American currency. They didn’t understand the buying power of American monetary units.”
With the clock edging toward 10 p.m. and the rest stop bustling with other travelers, Lindberg explained as best he could the differences among a quarter, nickel and a dollar. The students caught on quickly, he said.
At breakfast in the Lee dining hall the first day, Lindberg gave a detailed explanation of the food line and how the students would collect their own food. His talk seemed to draw a great sigh of relief from the students when he explained that chopsticks would be available.
“Yet most of the kids, you will notice, used the silverware,” Lindberg said.
Several former and current Lee students, Westerners and Asians, have been hired for the three weeks to act as community and cultural guides to the Chinese.
Hailing Lee, deputy principal of the Xiguan Foreign Language School of Guangzhou, said the students and faculty were pleased with the program so far.
“We are being made to feel very comfortable here,” Lee said with the aid of a translator.
The students are studying the English language during the morning sessions, with afternoon classes devoted to American culture. Many field trips are planned during the afternoons and weekends, Lindberg said.
The students will tour Maine colleges and universities, possibly visit Baxter State Park, attend concerts, visit Lincoln’s Public Safety Building to see firefighters, go to Silver Lake and perhaps take in a Portland Sea Dogs game, though many are probably not that familiar with American baseball, Lindberg said.
A private academy founded in 1845, Lee has contracts with local school boards to educate students from SAD 30, which serves Lee, Springfield, Webster and Winn. The school also serves students from Greenbush, Kingman, Topsfield, Vanceboro and the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine. Tuition, room and board is approximately $26,000 a year for seven-day boarding students.
Lee Academy has been a pioneering school in drawing Chinese students to Maine, with its efforts beginning in 2008. In the school year that ended recently, 31 Chinese attended Lee out of 81 international students. Lee also has formed satellite American high schools in China and South Korea.
Among the Chinese students, one could sense a burgeoning curiosity about the United States and its culture.
“It’s a beautiful area,” Lu said.
And it’s much different from China’s third-largest city, Guangzhou, from which all of the students hail. Guangzhou is a Chinese version of a Chicago or Los Angeles — a sprawling metropolitan landscape teeming with people, the students said.
“One of the attractions [in the U.S.] is the architecture,” said 14-year-old Aitong Chen. “We don’t have that many houses in Guangzhou. We have a lot of apartments, tall buildings.”