CHENGDU, China -- Three decades after its founding and four years after the killings at Tiananmen Square washed out a scheduled program, the U.S. Peace Corps finally has come to China.
The first 18 U.S. volunteers are training outside Chengdu, capital of southwestern Sichuan Province, anxious to overcome suspicions about being spies and to demonstrate their young American morals will not corrupt Chinese youth.
Most of the group preparing to spend two years teaching English to high school instructors at small rural colleges are college graduates in their 20s. But it also includes Lalla Overby, 68, a librarian from Gainesville, Ga.
'I certainly won't leave behind some of their great youthful energy, but I can share something of what I know about America, perceptions that we have,' she explained.
Chinese authorities are suspicious of the Peace Corp's role as an independent U.S. government agency reporting to the White House.
'China had difficulties quelling fears of connections with the intelligence community,' said a source familiar with the program. 'In such a remote area, it could look like a set-up.'
The Peace Corps has a long-standing policy that anyone connected with the intelligence community is not allowed to be a volunteer.
In a compromise, the Peace Corps has played down its status as a government agency. The Chinese side of bilingual business card of Peace Corps China Director Bill Speidel labels the program the U.S.-China Friendship Association. The flip side, in English, retains the name Peace Corps.
Informally, Chinese officials still call the group 'He Ping Dui,' a literal translation of 'Peace Corps.'
The Peace Corps also overcame the doubts of local college administrators about the wisdom of releasing young Americans, and young American morals, on small town Chinese campuses and students never before in contact with American teachers.
The volunteers do not expect to corrupt the population.
'We've been told we'll be a novelty and will stand out, so I'm prepared,' said Melody Farrin, 23, of Wyckoff, N.J. 'Chinese people I've been in contact with so far have been curious and open, not in a negative way.'
Speidel said said he did not see so-called corruption of Chinese morals as a major problem.
Volunteers, he said, are encouraged to try and see cultural and moral questions from the point of view of the Chinese hosts and 'not to use exclusively American eyes and instincts' in such situations.
'We've got a higher than average amount of common sense in this group,' he said.
Overby said her Peace Corps experience began with a chance meeting on the street.
'A young friend said he was going to a Peace Corps workshop, would I like to go?' she said. 'I found the whole idea of serving with the Peace Corps intriguing. And they were interested in older people.
'One day they called and asked if I would like to go to China. I said yes.'
President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 to send volunteers to work two years in developing countries. A total of 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers currently operate in approximately 100 countries.
The Peace Corps started when China and the United States were Cold War-era enemies, a state ending in 1979 with the establishment of diplomatic relations.
A Peace Corps program for China has been repeatedly delayed.
An earlier group of volunteers was stranded in Washington during training in 1989 after Chinese soldiers and tanks broke up the pro- democracy movement protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June that year.
'It was a great disappointment for those who expected the program to be set up in China,' said Speidel, a Mandarin speaker who has spent more than 20 years living in China or Taiwan. 'No one thought the delay would last four years.'
The volunteers will finish 11 weeks of training -- including three hours of daily Mandarin instruction -- in September at the Sichuan Teachers University outside Chengdu and be assigned to cities of up to 200,000 people in the inner reaches of Sichuan.
The volunteers will live in local communities. Although they haven't yet seen their homes for the next two years, they seem surprised at the luxury of their accommodations during training.
'The Chinese have done everything they can to make us comfortable,' said Overby. 'We have air conditioning, no less.'
The Peace Corps head office outside Chengdu is still skeletal. More than three months after Speidel arrived in March, office telephones were still unreliable and communications difficult.
'Simply creating a Peace Corps office has really taken our energy,' said Speidel. 'Finding the space, the staff, getting minimum hardware and equipment to create the modicum of an office -- it's been a struggle.
'We're expected to live in the local community. We're not living like foreign service officers or expatriate businessmen,' he said. 'I haven't yet found housing for myself and my family.'
The new program is still defining its role in China.
'The problem, or really the question, is where to go from here,' Speidel explained. 'Should it be more English teaching or other fields where the Peace Corps can provide technical competence.'
'I think once we're up and running, we'll turn to that question. But there's no hurry.'NEWLN: