BEIJING — While the spotlight shines on the Michael Phelpses and the Jennie Finches of the world, a group of Chinese-American photography students is highlighting the thousands of behind-the-scenes volunteers who serve as the backbone of the Olympic Games.
Along the way, the budding photojournalists are coming to appreciate their Chinese heritage. In some cases, their grandparents migrated from China, and their outlook is formed by the hip culture of California’s San Francisco Bay Area.
The 36 overachieving students flew from San Francisco to Beijing as “junior Olympic ambassadors,” and they’re here to both watch the games and also to report on the more than 70,000 volunteers running the show.
Olympic staff and unpaid volunteers concern themselves with mundane logistics like picking up trash, managing the garden plots of fresh fruits and vegetables for the athletes, and standing in sweltering smog to direct wayward tourists.
Under the tutelage of master photographer Deng Wei, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the students are learning how to visually capture the overlooked people who are helping make the games a success.
They also plan to lend a direct hand as volunteers by serving on an Olympic traffic patrol.
“Their photojournalism project is focusing on people who don’t get the spotlight,” said Joshua Chen, whose father, Hong Kong native Paul Chen, created the ambassador program called Camp International three years ago as part of Legend Learning, a broader educational program for Chinese-American students.
Joshua Chen talked about how the students visited a shopping area in Beijing, where the flag flown in Tiananmen Square when China received Olympic host status on July 13, 2001, a day when many Chinese eyes welled up with tears of joy, is on display.
“[China] wanted the world to see what they’re capable of doing,” said Mr. Chen, 24, who helps manage the group with his parents. “For all the stereotypes out there, they don’t want to be seen as a backwards country. They don’t want to come across as awkward.”
Mr. Chen, whose two younger sisters are participants or “campers,” said students sign up for the intensive language training and volunteer work for a host of reasons, from the potential for professional growth by learning Chinese to personal goals like understanding their family background.
“They realized that there was part of their roots that they weren’t totally in touch with,” he said. “Some of them wanted to bridge that gap.”
Parents enroll their children in Camp International at $3,500 each because they or their families have Chinese ancestry and they want to pass along an understanding of Chinese language and culture.
“I want them to not see China as so foreign,” said Cecilia Wong, one of four adult chaperones and mother of Daniel Ki, 15, a student ambassador from Cupertino, Calif., and president of his high school class.
Mrs. Wong and her husband are originally from Hong Kong. She moved to the United States after graduating from college.
Participants also believe the Chinese experience will help in their college applications and job search later.
“It doesn’t hurt to have something like this on your resume,” said Phil Wong, 17, an aspiring actor who played a small voice-over role in the cartoon “The Incredibles” and hopes to make it big someday in live theater.
Phil’s father is a second-generation American, whose family is from Hong Kong. His mother came to the United States when she was 18 years old for college.
“I’m part of the China experience. I feel kind of at home,” Phil said. “The 2008 Beijing Olympics only comes once. This place will only be this diverse and this vibrant once in history.”