0729AUSTINAUDAustin Todd, a rising Flowery Branch High School junior, talks about his June 11-27 trip to China as part of the People to People program.
FLOWERY BRANCH - Instead of the traditional cake and candles, Austin Todd heard a Chinese version of "Happy Birthday" when he turned 16 this summer.
Word had slipped out that he aged another year during a stop in Hong Kong as part of a 17-day People to People Student Ambassador Program to China.
He heard frequent versions of the birthday tune. "About every five minutes," Todd said.
Todd, a rising junior at Flowery Branch High School, went to the communist Asian country in June with a delegation of 50 students from Atlanta and Tampa. He was the only student representing Hall County.
The highlight of the trip, other than turning 16, was visiting the ancient Great Wall of China.
"Climbing 2,000 steps to reach the peak ... was an amazing experience," Todd said.
The group visited the Juyongguan Section of the Great Wall in mountains near Beijing. The travelers also played basketball with students from a Shaolin Kung Fu School.
Todd said even though the Chinese students did not speak English, sports was a way both groups could communicate easily with each other - and have fun at the same time.
The delegation also participated in a service project, met with local Chinese officials and stayed in the homes of host families.
"The family that I was with was very nice and always had a smile on their faces," Todd wrote in a thank-you letter to people who helped fund his trip. "The lady of the house prepared a huge meal for us and even when we said that we were full, she kept bringing more and more food."
The students visited Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Upon arriving in Xi'an, the delegation was honored with a welcome ceremony at the city gate and given keys to the ancient city.
The group also sampled the regional cuisine and learned about Chinese culture.
"Half the time, I had no idea what I was eating," Todd wrote in his letter. "I do know that I ate sweet and sour squid and also goat, which actually wasn't too bad. But I was really glad to have a cheeseburger when I got back to the (U.S.)"
The trip cost $6,500, with Todd able to raise $5,200 on his own.
A couple of businesses helped chip in some money as well, said his mother, Amy Todd, during an interview at their home Sunday.
"He did put a lot of effort in this," she said. "He was very diligent in completing everything."
The process for going on the journey began in the fall of 2007 when Austin received a letter saying that he had been nominated by a teacher for the program. He was approved for the trip after an interview and application process. He had to participate in four four-hour sessions that taught students what to expect on the trip.
Students also learned about China's history and culture, Todd said.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded People to People in 1956 as way to connect ordinary U.S. citizens with people in other countries.
The flight from Atlanta to China took 31 hours, including two four-hour layovers.
He also visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which used to be home to Chinese emperors.
From the tour bus, Todd and fellow students saw where the Chinese were preparing for the Summer Olympics, which is set to start Aug. 8.
Todd was appreciative of the experience, as was his mother.
"I was proud of him for wanting to do this," she said. "(It's) something I will never get to experience in my lifetime. I was happy that he went, but I was really glad when he got back."
Todd, who is undecided about his career or where he wants to go to college, said in his thank-you letter, "We left China with memories that we will never forget."
"This experience has expanded my understanding of the world, and it was an incredible opportunity."