VAIL, Colorado - Foreign countries aren't all that foreign, learned a local hockey team touring China.
The Vail International Hockey team is on its way back from China, the 10th trip the organization has taken to either China or Eastern Europe since 1985.
Merv Lapin started the whole thing in 1985 because he likes to travel, and has taken more than 600 people over two and a half decades. He says it's important for local kids to see a world beyond the valley.
"One cannot generalize all foreign countries to be different in the same ways. Just like our own United States, the differences depend heavily on the economic position of the natives you meet," said Cole Caynoski, one of this year's players touring China. "I expected the kids to act and be different, but they are really quite similar. It reminded me that past all the stereotypes, racism and distance separating the people of the world. We are all human."
The local kids played six hockey games and did all the regular tourist stuff - The Great Hall of the People, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, a trip to Tiananmen Square to visit the body of Chairman Mao, who looked a little waxy, but pretty good for someone who's been dead that long.
But what made the biggest impression was their visit to the homes of their Chinese opponents in Beijing.
They have everything in common, including the language. Many of the Chinese players attend an international school where many of the teachers are English speakers and English is the main language spoken. These Chinese kids said they'd rather read and write English than Mandarin, Caynoski said.
Keaton Fedrizzi said his Chinese hockey player host beat him in an English word game and is headed to New York City for a math competition.
Brian Beaudin writes that after a hockey game in Beijing (the Vail kids won), they ate lunch in a mall (the Vail kids are better at chopsticks) everyone played video games and basketball (the Chinese kids smoked the locals in hoops).
It was cold and the Chinese kids weren't wearing coats, although it's a safe bet their mothers told them to.
They felt at home when they went to their hosts' home, an American style suburban house where they played video games, drank soda and played some table tennis.
"It was odd, for the first time on this trip I felt like I was back in the good old U.S. of A," Caynoski said.
The differences were few, except their focus on academics.
"They took their school work seriously, like a job, which is something you rarely see in the U.S.," Caynoski said. "Most of the players on the Beijing club said that they were nearing their last years of hockey as their studies would become too difficult to continue playing."
"The focus on the intellectual world was a major difference, and not one I expected," Caynoski said.
In the end the Chinese kids were still kids.
"In my past two experiences with foreign kids my age, Austrians four years ago and a more eastern style Beijing family two years ago, I witnessed the same feeling resonating from all: that feeling of similarity and youth, a sort of unspoken sameness you get from people your age," Caynoski said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.