SACO – Linfeng “Patrick” Zhu loves to play badminton. But badminton isn’t offered at Thornton Academy, where Zhu is attending school this year as part of the school’s first international group of students.

So he went out for baseball.

“I know baseball is a traditional American sport,” said Zhu, an 18-year-old sophomore. “In China, you almost never play baseball and I wanted to try something American-style. I love baseball.”

This is exactly what Thornton Academy officials were hoping for when they opened their school to international boarding students: a chance for the students, home-grown and foreign, to share cultures.

Thornton, one of the 11 boarding schools in Maine, has 39 international students who live in a new dormitory near Hill Stadium. Ground will be broken soon for a second dorm for another 42 students. Eventually the school hopes to have three dormitories and 150 international students.

This year’s group comes from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Colombia and Malta. And while they don’t all participate in interscholastic sports, many are playing sports for the first time.

“The kids from China are coming from schools that have 4,000 to 5,000 students, that have 50 kids in a class, that stay in the same classroom and study 12 subjects a day,” said Mark Powers, the director of admissions. “They have no time for extracurricular activities whatsoever. They see this as awesome. It’s not just about academics to them, but the whole picture.

“A lot of them are trying new sports, such as field hockey or lacrosse. They’ve been very excited to participate in things they’ve never tried.”

Chung “Eric” Chan, for example, is playing lacrosse, which isn’t played in China. “I wanted to play a new sport,” said Chan, who plays midfield. “Lacrosse looked like fun. It’s exciting and I’m getting better at it.”

Chan, who played field hockey in Hong Kong, also played junior varsity soccer in the fall. A skilled player, he didn’t arrive at the school until after preseason double sessions. “Next year I will come in August and be ready,” he said.

Yuqi Xiao played football last fall and learned a quick lesson when, as a wide receiver, he tackled a defensive back on his first-ever play.

Zhirho “Elaine” Hu and Jiawen “Carmen” Liang played field hockey, a male sport in China.

Thornton’s junior varsity girls’ tennis team has six international students among its 13 players: Melody Chen (who also ran cross country and indoor track), Rita Miao, Autumn Qiu, Suzy Sun (who also writes for the school newspaper), Calsi Wang and Daniela Montoya (a native Colombian who also swam in the winter and is taking boxing lessons at a Biddeford gym).

Chen, who attended high school in Mansfield, Ohio, last year, was thinking about running track, but “thought I might want to try something new. I had a hard time at the beginning catching the ball, but I enjoy it.”

Sun said she was looking for some exercise in the spring and “tennis looked like fun and I can meet other friends.”

And then there’s Zhu, who didn’t even know how to wear a baseball glove. After speaking to Coach Greg Paradis, whose family lives in the dorm, he decided to try out.

He didn’t make any of Thornton’s teams, but he practices with the freshmen team when he can and goes to their games.

“I think I should practice more,” said Zhu, who comes from Suzhou, a city outside of Shanghai. “It’s hard for me to swing the bat to hit the ball. And I’m not familiar with all the rules. In China I played badminton; it was my favorite. Now baseball is my favorite.

“I think it’s part of the American culture that I should know about. I have teammates. It’s more than just playing, it’s about making relationships.”

And that, say Maine school officials, is what’s important.

“It’s important for everyone to get involved,” said Blaine Steeves, the athletic director at Washington Academy in East Machias, where about 90 international students attend. “I don’t care if you’re a boarding student or a day student. To me, it’s a good way to socialize, to meet other kids, to find your niche in the school.”

And at Fryeburg Academy, about 80 of the school’s 100 or so international students were involved in sports. The Raiders’ entire boys’ varsity tennis team, and all but two of the junior varsity, is international.

“There are certain teams that attract students,” said Stephanie Morin, the head of admissions. “Tennis tends to be a big draw because it’s something they know and play.”

These schools also reap financial benefits in an economy where school budgets are drained annually. At Thornton Academy, the tuition cost $32,500 this year, and will increase to $35,750 next year. Fryeburg’s tuition this year was $37,300.

Thornton’s Powers said the financial responsibilities of the families are great. None of the tuition is subsidized. “It’s all private money,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing what they do.”

And the schools realize they have a great responsibility. At Thornton, the students eat at the cafeteria, and the school often has a special meal based on their homeland. They go on field trips — some Thornton students went to the Boston Celtics’ playoff game Friday night. Bob Davies, the boys’ basketball coach, set up a weekend basketball league for dorm students.

TA’s Paradis said living in the dorm — his family is one of the five faculty families in the dorm — has had a great effect on his family’s life. His three children — Adeline (10), Olivia (8) and Jackson (3) — and wife Cathy are learning a new way of life.

“What we didn’t anticipate was how close we’d become to the kids,” he said. “We understand that the kids are halfway around the world and that their parents are halfway around the world. So we make sure there’s always something going on. And we’re there for them.”

The international students have taught the local families their traditions and holidays, such as the Chinese New Year. Conversely, the international students have learned about Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The local students have also taught the international students about fast food. The part of Route 1 just north of Thornton is called “Hamburger Alley,” for its fast-food joints.

“Burger King, Wendy’s, I’ve tried them all,” said Chan.

Maybe that’s not quite the cultural exchange school officials were hoping for, but at least the students are bonding.

“There have already been some long-lasting friendships formed,” said Gary Stevens, the athletic director at Thornton. “Sports is teaching the international students life lessons and citizenship through competition. And this is giving our day students a leadership role in teaching the international students the fundamentals of a game.”

Of course, any international student competing in a varsity sport must comply with the Maine Principals’ Association’s transfer rules, which means that Stevens had to get sign-offs from the student (easy to do), receiving principal (easy to do), parent (a little harder) and sending principal (very hard).

“It meant a lot of post-midnight phone calls,” said Stevens. “That’s when someone was at the school who could speak English and understand what I needed.”

Many Thornton coaches say the international students bring a different attitude. “They bring a lot of positive energy to the team,” said Christine Felser, the assistant girls’ tennis coach. “A lot of them are younger and playing for fun, and to learn rather than to become fierce competitors.”

But they’re also learning how important sports are to Americans. Yide “Clarence” Yan, a senior and the No. 2 singles player on the boys’ tennis team, takes his game seriously. He was the No. 2 player at Washington Academy last year, and knows what it takes to win. Tennis, he said, “is much more serious here” than in Shanghai. “We don’t have a season just for tennis there,” said Yan, who recently won the state math championship.

After a recent loss, Yan was upset with his play. Coach Andrew Carlson said Yan “is a very competitive kid, on the court and in the classroom. It’s sometimes frustrating for him not to have success.”

But Carlson said, Yan has “made a really good connection with the other kids.”

Especially with junior Kent Dao, TA’s No. 3 singles player and one of the school’s student ambassadors. Dao often hangs out at the dorm, playing video games or basketball.

“It helps build a bond,” said Dao. “Clarence is a little more social than a lot of other students. His English is better and that helps.”

Dao said getting dorm students involved in sports has never been an issue for day students. “Everyone accepts them as if they came from America,” he said. “Or if they’re just another kid going out to compete.”

Sarah Strassler, a senior on the girls’ tennis team, befriended Melody Chen, who stayed at her home during April vacation. The two met in cross country and Strassler has spent much of the school year teaching Chen American slang. She said that the international students added to the school’s quality of life.

“It surprises me how much like me (Chen) is,” said Strassler, who is also a student ambassador. “When I’m with her, I forget that she’s from a different country.”

 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]