Olympic band students return from China

They may not have come home with gold medals around their necks, but the students returning from Beijing as part of the Olympic Orchestra got a hero's welcome from excited family and friends Tuesday afternoon.

Two charter busloads of students, largely from Beyer High School, arrived late Tuesday afternoon after 20-plus hours of travel from Beijing to Modesto, with stops in Shanghai and San Francisco.

The students were among more than 130 student musicians and color guard members from Modesto's six high schools, plus Riverbank and Pitman high schools, California State University, Stanislaus, and California State University, Fresno, who made the trip.

As part of the Olympic Orchestra, the musicians joined 2,008 students from across the country and the world in the band.

As the buses pulled up, family members greeted them with shouts, applause, signs and flowers. About two dozen people awaited the tired travelers.

"It was really amazing," said 18-year-old Ashley Lewis, a sophomore at CSU Stanislaus and a Beyer grad. "Seeing the different culture, tasting the food, getting to meet other musicians from other countries. It was such a fun experience."

Lewis' parents were there to pick her up, along with her dog, Hershey.

The group left July 29, crossing the dateline and arriving July 31 in Beijing. While in China, they were housed mostly in Grand Epoch City, about 30 miles southeast of Beijing.

The group had four peformances. The orchestra was divided into color-coded sections by region — Red Hub was for the Americas, Green Hub for Australia and the South Pacific and Gold Hub for China. The hubs performed individually and together

They had concerts in Tiananmen Square and on the Great Wall, toured the Forbidden City and caught a women's soccer match (China versus Sweden).

While the students' schedules were packed, there was time to sightsee and shop for souvenirs. Beyer High sophomore Daniel Moreno and his mother, one of the group's chaperons, came back with an extra duffel bag filled with gifts and purchases.

"It was a 9.5 out of 10," said Moreno, who plays the cymbals. "It's only not a 10 because we ate rice with everything. It was like, 'Oh no, not more rice!' "

Parents back home and students were able to exchange some e-mails and phone calls. But students said the censorship of the media was a bit of a culture shock.

They had not heard about the death of the U.S. tourist in Beijing or the Russian invasion of Georgia until days later because of the tight control on the media and Internet.

"All the censorship was crazy," said Beyer High senior Jennifer Jacobs. "All they showed on TV was Chinese opera and HBO shows."

But overall, students said they found the Chinese people to be friendly and welcoming.

"The people, especially when we were in uniform, would watch us and tell their kids to stand in front of the band so they could take a picture," said Samantha Christensen, a recent Beyer High grad and flutist.

The orchestra had one multi-hub performance in Tianjin. They caravaned in more than 50 buses to the location, with military escorts closing the roads along their route. That performance was reported on by more than 100 Chinese and international news outlets.

"There were so many of us and the music was all around," said Samantha, whose 15-year-old brother, Spencer, and mother, Trish, also were on the trip. "Being with people from all over the world, all playing the same thing and feeling the same thing, it was just amazing."

Bee entertainment writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.