ORONO, Maine — Two Orono High School students who recently returned from a 10-day visit in March to China’s Hunan Province as part of a recruiting mission say they brought back much more than souvenirs.
For James O’Neil, a junior who has been studying Chinese for two years, the trip offered opportunities to speak the language with locals and experience China and its culture.
O’Neil describes Chinese as a sing-songy language because words can “go up or down and make a swishing sound or kind of cut off. So one word can mean at least four different things, sometimes a lot more. You’ve got to be careful and think about how you’re going to say the word before you say the word so that it’s not offensive.”
He said he is studying the Chinese language and culture because the nation is a growing global power in business and other arenas.
Sophomore Lily Koffman, who is studying German and Spanish but not Chinese, said the visit broadened her world view.
“I think the whole experience gives us a more global view of the world. As Americans, we have a tendency to be a little egocentric and think that our culture is what every place is like but it’s not,” she said.
“I plan to travel in the future and pursue a career that involves travel so I think this experience has shown me that I can do it even if I don’t speak the language. It taught me how to interact with people who are a lot different than you,” Koffman said.
The two were part of an 11-member Orono High delegation to China that included a Chinese student attending Orono High who served as a translator and staff members, according to Mackenzie Grobmyer, coordinator of the school’s International Program.
The group’s main mission was to recruit students from Orono High’s four sister schools in China.
Orono High School began courting Chinese tuition students four years ago, when it entered a sister school arrangement with a high school in the city of Changsha, Hunan Province’s capital city.
Two years ago, seven students signed up for a year of American-style education at Orono High. Last year, the total grew to nine.
The total grew again this year, with 12 students from China enrolled, Grobmyer said.
The Chinese students are among 17 international students attending Orono High this year, she said, adding that the others hail from Spain, Thailand, Norway, Italy and Israel.
“It is a great way to bring diversity to our school, Grobmyer said of the international program. “We’re trying to bring the world to Orono and give our students opportunities to visit other countries and experience other cultures.”
Grobmyer said most of the international students are here for their senior year and most are taking Advance Placement courses or classes at the nearby University of Maine.
“As far as academics, I think [the international students] challenge us, raise the standards,” Koffman said.
O’Neil and Koffman are student ambassadors for the International Program.
“When the Chinese kids first arrive — and throughout the year — we do a lot of things with them. We’re kind of like familiar faces for them,” Koffman said.
“We plan dinner once a month and other activities and just help them assimilate into American culture, if they want,” said O’Neil, the group’s chairman.
Some activities the group has organized for their visitors from China include ice fishing, hiking, camping, pumpkin carving for Halloween and cookie decorating for Christmas and Chinese New Year celebrations, to name a few. There also have been trips to the Maine coast, Freeport for shopping and Boston.
O’Neil and Koffman say that visiting China has given them a better understanding of what it is like to be in shoes of their Chinese classmates, the two students said.
“It definitely helps me to understand what they’re feeling when they come over here now so it will be easier to help them assimilate,” O’Neil said.
Added Koffman: “I felt really overwhelmed at first when we got there and when we were staying with host families. It was a lot [to take in] at once and I now I know how they feel. By understanding that, I can help the process be smoother and less scary when they come over next year.”
While in China, the Orono High School students had three days to explore the city of Shanghai on their own and spent the rest of their time in Changsha, where they stayed with host families and attended classes at a local high school.
They said that the Chinese school day there is much longer — from about 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. with lunch and dinner breaks that run about two hours each — and students go to classes on Saturdays, O’Neil and Koffman said.
“It kind of made me appreciate the freedoms that we have here,” Koffman said.
O’Neil noted that Chinese schools have a different approach to education.
“They’re probably more grounded in memorization so they’re good in math and science. They have a strong background in that,” he said. “But here, I’d say it’s more of an abstract way of learning — critical thinking and developing your own opinion of things and being able to analyze and think things over.”
Despite not knowing a word of Chinese until recently, Koffman said she did pretty well when it came to making herself understood.
“There were a lot charades,” she said with a laugh. “We went to some non-touristy restaurants so there was a lot of pointing at Chinese characters and not knowing what you were gonna get,” she said, adding that Chinese menu choices included chicken feet, chicken and duck heads, pig blood soup, cow stomach and fried fish guts. “Those were actually pretty good,” she said of the fish guts.
According to Grobmyer, Orono High’s sister school program now includes schools in three other Chinese cities.
In recent years, more and more Maine schools have turned eyes to China while seeking higher enrollment.
Lee Academy last summer hosted about 100 students who came here for four-week Advanced Placement or college-level courses. John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, Wiscasset High School and Stearns High School in Millinocket, among others, also have thrown their hats in the ring.
In addition, educators from Maine are participating in exchange programs with Chinese schools.
An earlier version of this story contained an error. Orono High School's International Program coordinator is named Mackenzie Grobmyer, not Gobmyer.