TRAVERSE CITY — Rory Womack and Allie Friar stood out during their recent trip to Dalian, a seaport city in northeast China inhabited by more than 6 million people.
Womack, then a junior at Traverse City West Senior High School, and Friar, a Central High School sophomore at the time, returned this month from a three-week stay in Dalian with about 20 other Traverse City Area Public Schools high school students and three teachers, part of the district's budding foreign exchange partnership with Dalian University of Technology.
All of the students turned heads during the trip. Locals couldn't get enough of the Traverse City youths.
"They'll just take pictures of you or pull you into a picture with themselves," Womack said.
The attention didn't end with strangers. Womack and Friar said their host families and officials at Dalian University of Technology, where the TCAPS students took language and culture classes, went above and beyond to make the exchange trip an incredible experience.
"They thought of everything and they just put effort into everything," Friar said.
Both students thoroughly enjoyed their time in China and expect to stay in touch with their Chinese counterparts, Tina, 15, and James, 16, who previously stayed with Friar and Womack when a group of Dalian students visited Traverse City for three weeks this winter.
Friar described Tina as "bubbly" and "sweet," and said she spoke English well.
"She spoke English better than me," Womack joked.
Womack and Friar described Chinese culture as very Americanized in some ways: popular movies there included "Ironman" and "Titanic."
But the students noted differences, too. They said going out to dinner with their host family was a wholly different experience than going out to eat in America.
Families dine at a table with a Lazy Susan and order an extravagant amount of food.
"More than you can eat doesn't cover how much they ordered," Womack said.
Often additional dishes were ordered before the first round of food is finished, and it's customary to leave uneaten food on the table.
Many of the dishes In Dalian revolved around seafood; Womack called the city "the Mecca of Chinese seafood."
TCAPS students also spent three days in Beijing, the Chinese capital with a population of more 20 million. There they visited sites like the Great Wall of China, the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City.
TCAPS Associate Superintendent Jayne Mohr said students from Dalian are applying for a yearlong exchange to Traverse City. TCAPS hopes to host 25 Chinese students at both West and Central next year.
"We'll start small and then grow from there," Mohr said.