An agricultural tour nearly 40 years ago led to an all-expenses-paid trip for two dozen Iowa students to visit China over eight days last month.
“Good things happen when you are a good friend to people, I guess,” Muscatine High School teacher Sarah Lande said, according to Voice of America.
Lande in 1985 hosted a group from China visiting Muscatine over several days for an agricultural research tour, and one of the participants was Xi Jinping, the current president of China. Xi later returned to Muscatine to visit his “old friends” in 2012, and Lande more recently attended a dinner at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco that featured remarks from Xi.
The Chinese president’s comments that he aimed to host more American students in China prompted Lande to reach out to advocate for Muscatine High students, and days later Lande received a personal invitation from Xi to bring two dozen students, the Muscatine Journal reports.
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The week-long trip in late January was coordinated through the Chinese Ministry of Education and the Chinese Consulate in Chicago. Students visited the Great Wall of China and other cultural destinations, and participated in several youth events. They went to Fudan University, learned about ancient Chinese paper and writing, and made dumplings, according to the Daily Mail.
“I was so happy and excited that I got to go,” Sienna Stoneking, a Chinese language student, told the Journal. “It was really cool to see how they live their day-to-day lives and how we live ours, and then try to find some similarities between us.”
The trip comes amid heightened scrutiny of communist China in the U.S. in recent years, tied in part to trade disputes during the Trump administration, but also concerns about the country purchasing U.S. farm lands, and communist indoctrination and monitoring through U.S. K-12 schools and universities.
“Both of our counties, you could say, are trying to be number one,” Lande told VOA. “I think our challenge is to grow a curiosity and understanding and find ways to work together.”
Students who went on the trip told the Journal that while the countries compete, the people have a lot in common.
“Even though we’re so far away from each other, we’re still close to each other too because of the Internet and other stuff,” student Leo Regennitter said. “I met a few students from other schools who watch the same shows that we watch here and listen to the same music. A lot of them liked Taylor Swift.”
Student Cole Loos said being in China gave him a better appreciation of what it’s about than he could have found in books.
“It was really cool to see all of the different things there and learn about their culture, how the cities were built and brought up along with their background,” he said. “I feel like it’s important to get a first-hand idea of what a place is like. People have all these ideas of what it’s like in other countries, so seeing first-hand and being there is different than just learning about it from a book or class. You get to learn a lot more about them instead of just hearing the ideas that others have about them.”