LA JOLLA — School starts today at La Jolla Country Day. If asked to write what happened on her summer vacation, Amy Rosenberg will have a story to tell. It's a story about communism, Mao Tse Tung, international relations, MTV, break-dancing and yes, even Coca-Cola.
It was some vacation.
Rosenberg is a 15-year-old sophomore. She's even class president, which implies a certain degree of responsibility. But what about her parents? They sent Amy to China by herself.
That's right, Rosenberg flew from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Peking. She loved China so much, she insists on calling Peking Beijing, as the natives do. She also loved China's striking similarity to loose, casual, live-for-the-moment California.
"They say in China that your only itinerary is the one from yesterday," she said philosophically. "You have to be flexible and open to change."
Rosenberg's parents--Dr. Jay Rosenberg and Judy Rosenberg--were so flexible and open to change that they believed Amy's most meaningful summer vacation would be a trip to a foreign land. She preferred Switzerland.
"You can go to Switzerland any time," her father said, suggesting something less neutral and more high gear. "Why not pick another, more challenging place?"
Amy was thumbing through a booklet published by The Experiment in International Living, an organization based in Vermont that sponsors exotic, educational summer holidays for kids. It's open to kids all over the country, but Rosenberg was the first to enlist from San Diego County. She hopes she won't be the last.
"I can't think of a better experience," she said, "for any kid."
Lawrence Sykoff is inclined to agree. He's principal of the middle school at La Jolla Country Day and a friend of the Rosenberg family.
"She's always been a very strong student," he said of Amy. "More important, she's a steadfast individual, one willing to reach out for the extra step. That's really the kind of thing she did with this trip. She's always willing to explore beyond the parameters of the classroom. That's what a good student--a good person--has to do.
"You know, she's lived her whole life in La Jolla, but suddenly she realizes with a trip to China that there's a big world out there. It was in many ways a humbling experience--to see such diversity and poverty."
Rosenberg traveled with a dozen other teens, ages 14 to 17. All were chaperoned by a 28-year-old group leader, who admittedly had her hands full.
The trip, which lasted almost six weeks (July 2 to Aug. 12), cost about $4,000. Rosenberg said her only real fear came in Hong Kong. She was anxious about meeting the family she would stay with for three weeks.
As it turned out, they were nothing to fret about. They were nice, down-home folks. They even liked American television.
The family of eight, plus a grandmother who stays with them two days a week, live in a flat in a 12-story building. The flat wasn't that big, and the weather was usually hotter than Szechuan peppers, but Rosenberg relished every second of every minute of every day.
She even got excited when a typhoon roared through Hong Kong. She called her parents, knowing they would be worried. And they were. But only about themselves. They had just endured Southern California's second earthquake in a week. What typhoon? they wanted to know.
Rosenberg was astonished by the large numbers of people muttering English in Hong Kong, by its many American touches--including McDonald's on almost every corner--and by its contrasts to the People's Republic of China.
She learned right away that communism and their way of life wasn't something the Chinese felt comfortable "getting down" and talking about. They would gingerly answer all questions, but revealing, insightful truths were pointedly nonexistent. Every reply was laced with hesitancy, skepticism and fear. Neither was there an indication that the Chinese are boosters about communism. They simply left well enough alone.
Incidental, unexpected moments were the ones that kept Rosenberg laughing and spinning yarns back home. Upon visiting a hospital in Taishan, she showed a dentist her braces. He stared in wonder, cocking his head at various odd angles to get a closer, deeper look. Very few wear such metallic fixtures in China, and then only in the biggest cities.
One woman at Temple Mountain rushed up to Rosenberg and asked worriedly: "How long have you worn them?"
While reluctant to talk about government or ideology, the Chinese were openly curious about religion, specifically Rosenberg's--Judaism. She had many conversations with people wanting to know the intimate details of what having a faith is like.