I always wanted to travel and study abroad,” Lucius Baker said, “And I always wanted to learn Chinese.” Which is why this intrepid 24-year-old Forest Parker ventured alone 10,000 miles to attend the Beijing Language and Culture University. The question is: Did he miss Forest Park during his year’s stay in China’s capital city? “I didn’t get homesick,” Baker said, “But I did miss family, friends and [American] food.”

Baker has been such a part of Forest Park for the past 17 years; it’s hard to imagine him not working for the community in some capacity. “I’ve worked for the Park District as a lifeguard and a Day Camp counselor,” Baker recounted, “I’ve worked for the Community Center.” Baker even slapped tickets on illegally parked cars during his stint with Parking Enforcement. He’s currently manning the front desk at the pool; studying Chinese during slow times.

Though it might sound unorthodox, Baker sees Chinese as his entrée into the business world. He is working full-time for D.K. Designs, a company that imports jewelry from China. “I would even consider moving to China,” Baker said, “If a business opportunity arose.”

At the Beijing university, Baker was surrounded by like-minded students. “The school has 4,000 students from all over,” Baker explained, “Nigeria, Ecuador, Russia, Chile; even places I never heard of like Andorra.” Many of his classmates came there seeking jobs in the world’s fastest growing economy.

“My first roommate was from Hong Kong and spoke perfect English. He also spoke Mandarin and Cantonese but wanted to learn business and legal terms,” Baker said, “My second roommate was from Northern Ireland. He had taught English in Japan for two years but wanted to work in China.”

To work in China, one must know one of its dialects: Baker chose the most common one, Mandarin. But how did he learn about Beijing Language and Culture University in the first place? “I was working for Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn and a co-worker named Karen referred me to the university.” Karen also gave him a piece of advice: “Do it while you’re young.”

Baker received a letter of recommendation from the Lt. Governor, but selling the idea to his parents was another story. “My parents were apprehensive about me traveling abroad, with terrorism and other problems. But they decided it was a good fit and supported me 100 percent.”

The school was certainly a good fit from an economic standpoint. “Tuition is only $2,400 per year,” Baker said, “And I shared an apartment seven minutes from campus for $300 a month.” A big chunk of his budget went to the $1,500 he paid for the 19-hour flight. Still, the university was much more affordable than Baker’s previous school, De Paul University.

Baker applied in February 2004, was accepted in April and left for Beijing on August 19, 2004. “I didn’t know a word of Chinese,” Baker admitted, when he arrived in the city of 13½ million. He found Beijing to be crowded, busy and dusty. “The air was extremely polluted due to so much coal usage,” Baker recalled, “We only had 1to2 clear days a month.”

Classes began on September 1 at the Triton College-sized campus. “There were seventeen students in my class, and we strictly studied Chinese language: comprehension, usage, reading and listening.” Listening was what they did the most, because only Mandarin Chinese was spoken in the classroom. “There wasn’t much class participation,” Baker recalled, “The teachers couldn’t speak English, so they couldn’t answer your million questions.”

After spending four hours per day in class, Baker would work on homework for 2to3 hours a night. “The courses were fast-moving and intensive,” Baker said. Plus, Chinese is complicated. “There are four different tones of vocalization,” Baker explained. “So, one word can mean four different things depending on how you say it.”

Subjected to this flood of unfamiliar sounds, Baker and his classmates soon found themselves trying to stay afloat in the same boat. “Friendships and camaraderie quickly grew,” Baker said, “We did everything together: lunch, studying, dinner and then socializing.”

Surprisingly, Baker found Beijing had a “decent bar and club scene.” “We went clubbing ” hip-hop and karaoke were huge.” Although Baker often got up to sing, he can longer remember the song titles he chose, for some reason. The students were able to navigate the city using public transportation and bicycles. “I had my own bike,” Baker said, “There were thousands of people riding bikes.”

He also managed to squeeze in some sightseeing: visiting the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall. Still, most of his energy was expended in the classroom, where he learned how to read and write Mandarin. “After awhile, I gave up writing,” Baker said, “But I still could comprehend the characters.”

As an American, Baker was well treated, although some Chinese stereotype Americans as being fat and loud, while others characterize them as “living in a bubble, unaware of other cultures.” As an African-American, Baker was sometimes the subject of curiosity. Some Chinese tried to rub the darkness off his skin. Others believed that dark-skinned people all came from primitive huts in Africa. Still, the Chinese are a very polite people, Baker said, “even when they don’t mean it.”

It was just their food that began to stick in his throat. “I love Chinese food,” Baker said enthusiastically, “I could even pick up a little peanut with my chopsticks. But I grew up with American food for 24 years, so I got kind of sick of it.”

Beijing’s climate was a bit more like home but not as cold as Chicago. The city had a good deal of greenery and Baker did not see much poverty. “There was some substandard housing,” Baker recalled, “But the capitalistic influence is raising people up.” China may have a long way to go in providing for its people but it wasn’t short on propaganda. “The government wants to promote pride in China,” Baker explained, “For the people to be proud of where they live.” The world will get a chance to see the progress China has made when Beijing hosts the 2008 Olympics.

Baker returned to Forest Park on July 5. He was proud of his accomplishment in China. “After living at home and commuting to school, it took guts to go to a strange country,” he said. Baker believes he found the source of his courage growing up in Forest Park.

“My mother Cheryl was the first woman and first African-American on the Forest Park Police Department,” he said proudly. Cheryl Baker served 16 years on the department, while her husband, Lucius I, spent 12 years on the force. Lucius II believes he caught his parents pioneering spirit. He endured a degree of racism growing up but chose to ignore it.

After attending St. Bernardine’s, Middle School and Fenwick High School, Baker seemed destined to obtain his degree from De Paul. But after two years he lost interest in college. Instead, he set his sights on the world’s oldest civilization. “My education from now on will be traveling the world,” Baker said, “Studying other countries, people, cultures and languages.” But first he must get past the Mandarin.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.