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UNLOCKING CHINA

No s'mores -- try tai chi

For two American kids in Beijing, this variation on summer camp includes cooking and kite making.

September 16, 2007|Mary MacVean | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — It was 7:12 p.m. when I started to worry. Hah! Whom was I kidding? I panicked. Our sons had gone off that morning to summer camp in Beijing. I'd never been to this camp. We didn't speak Chinese, and we didn't know our way around. I tried not to imagine anything horrible.

Our boys, Sam, 13, and Galen, 11, had rejected my offer to accompany them that first morning -- they just climbed into a van and rode off, reminding me that they would be home around 6:30 or 7 p.m.

About 10 minutes after I lost it, in they walked, with that comfortable, tired look that kids have after a good, long day. (Their driver had been delayed, probably by traffic, but the boys had fallen asleep on the way home and weren't sure.)

When our family of four got the chance to spend half the summer here, we decided we could not turn it down. My husband would be working most of the time, and I would work at least some of the time. But what about the kids?

So I got busy on the Internet and found lots of possibilities for young people, including teen programs involving staying with families and traveling around China, day camps for very young children of embassy employees and other foreigners living in Beijing) and a drama camp where Chinese and foreign children would perform Shakespeare.

Despite the many choices, finding the right place was not easy. Some camps were only overnight. (The boys were fine with that, but we were not willing to travel all the way to China and not share the adventure of being here.) Some required four weeks' stay. Some were for children younger than 12. Those that included trips away from Beijing were pricey for us, some running more than $2,000 per child.

As I visited websites, I looked carefully at the photographs to see whether the campers looked happy and engaged and whether the furniture and/or equipment seemed in reasonably good shape. I e-mailed the contact and asked questions, partly to see what kind of reply I would get. I stopped considering one place because of this. Of the places that made the cut, my husband or I then talked with a staff member by phone. But of course, at such distance, I had to rely on instinct.

Examine the photos on a camp's website. For instance, one camp sounded good and accepted kids our boys' age, but the children in its website photos seemed to be very young. But if you like the camp and there's just one problem -- camp session dates, for example -- ask. We found camp officials generally accommodating.

We found World Link Education ( www.worldlinkedu.com), which has offices in Seattle and Beijing, among other places. World Link has offered language classes in China for 10 years, but this was its first year to offer a camp.

For the two boys, including rides to and from camp, meals and outings, the cost was $1,075 total for two weeks of days that lasted from 9 a.m. to about 5:30 p.m. The boys had fun, and they even learned a few things.

But first, we had to banish all thoughts of green fields, a lake, horses or other typical "camp" images. This was summer camp in a modern high-rise in northeastern Beijing. Mornings were spent in language lessons in groups of six or fewer; most afternoons were spent in cooking, art projects and sports -- indoors, at least in part because of Beijing's pollution.

Half the kids were foreigners learning Mandarin, and the other half were Chinese learning English. The kids spent time together in the afternoons. For the first year, the number of kids was capped at 24, but the camp is expected to grow, said Pauline Foo, assistant director of studies.

World Link is still trying to find a balance between work and play, difficult because some kids -- ours included -- groused about four hours of language classes, while others said they wanted more.

At the end of two weeks, Foo said, the newcomers to Chinese should have some familiarity with the language and should be able to say a few simple things. That was true; our sons could count, for example, and do a little bargaining. After six weeks, they should be able to have an everyday conversation.

Afternoons included swimming, basketball, pottery and the traditional activities of tai chi, table tennis, paper cutting and kite making, and a trip to an amusement park. Lunch alternated between Western and Chinese, with outings to restaurants. There were field trips on the weekends, but our sons spent that time with us.

Some campers came to China on their own; they could stay at a nearby university or with families.

"My family all speaks Chinese," said Eve Alloy, 17, from San Francisco. She learned French as a child and wanted to catch up.

"It's a new camp," she said, "but the people are really nice, and they have great teachers."

Andrew Astley, 15, who lives on the Isle of Man in Britain, said his father wanted him to learn Chinese so he would have a leg up when he goes to college and then into business.

"I never learn on the holidays, usually," he said. "I usually just go on holiday and relax."

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