BANGOR, Maine — When 17-year-old Justin Ehringhaus arrived in Bangor three weeks ago, he knew exactly one word in Mandarin.
“It means ‘hello’” he said on Saturday, demonstrating with deadpan earnestness.
But Saturday afternoon, at the closing ceremonies of the Bangor Chinese School’s intensive immersion program for children and teens, Justin was up on stage in front of an appreciative audience, singing a graceful and melodic love song in Mandarin.
Sharing the karaoke-style limelight with him was 17-year-old Joanna Abaroa of Arundel. She, too, had no experience with the language before the immersion program.
“I knew nothing,” she said, laughing during a hallway interview after her performance in the Kominsky Auditorium at Husson University.
On Monday, Justin and Joanna will be among 20 Maine youngsters, aged 15 to 18, who will journey to Harbin, a city of nearly 10 million in Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China. They will stay there three weeks, then move on to the city of Kunming, the capital of south-central Yunnan Province, for another three weeks before returning home to Maine.
The trip, organized and closely orchestrated by Jing Zhang, the energetic director of the Bangor Chinese School, will cost the students and their families nothing, thanks to a generous grant from the U.S. Department of State.
“This is my dream,” Harbin native Zhang said of the coming trip. “This is the kids’ dream, the parents’ dream, and Maine’s dream.”
China’s rapid emergence as a global economic force is fueling new interest among forward-looking American students and their families, Zhang said. For young adults who are familiar with the country’s language, culture and traditions, “there will be a lot of economic opportunity in the future,” she predicted.
The growing interest in all things Chinese drove about 50 youngsters in grades 1 through 12 to enroll in the Chinese school’s summer immersion program this year, which is now in its third season, she said. Most of the students are from Maine, but a handful came from other states, including New Mexico, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut.
More than 150 students from all across the country applied for the free trip to China, but only 20 made the cut, and all of them are from Maine.
“In our school, we take care of the Maine kids first,” Zhang said.
Justin Ehringhaus, a student at Casco Bay High School in Portland, said he has been interested in Chinese history and culture for some time and has read a group of books collectively known as The Four Great Classical Novels that date from the 14th century.
He looks forward to developing more insight into the languages and cultural practices of China during the six-week sojourn.
“I am sure knowing Chinese will help me,” he said. “And I’m sure this trip will change me a lot.”
Joanna Abaroa said she is a bit intimidated at the prospect of traveling in a culture so different from her own.
“But I love languages and I know I’m just going to soak it all up,” she said. “It’s awesome.”
Some students in the immersion program and heading to China on Monday have more experience.
Abby Jones, a 13-year-old from Hampden, has been studying at the Bangor Chinese School for four years, along with her father, physician Howard Jones. Though Abby is too young to be officially accepted for the trip, she and her father, who both have traveled in China before, will go for the first three weeks and help with the logistics.
“China is my favorite place in the world,” Abby said. She likes the friendliness of the people and the range of food she’s encountered. Looking ahead, she said, Americans who are familiar with Chinese language and customs will have real advantages.
“Our economy is only getting worse and worse,” she said, “and theirs is getting better.”
Plus, she added, “the boys are really cute.”
Zhang said the Maine students will quickly learn that flirting and carrying on with members of the opposite sex is discouraged among Chinese teenagers.
“Most kids here have boyfriends and girlfriends,” she said. “In China, no one is allowed to have boyfriends or girlfriends in high school. That’s study time.”
Supported by a group of knowledgeable American and Chinese chaperons, Zhang is prepared to deal with the score of high-spirited Maine kids she’s taking to her homeland. She said the Maine students will have limited freedoms and plenty of guidelines while they’re away.
“There has to be strict discipline,” she said cheerfully but firmly. “No rules, no success.”