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Chinese, US students plant roots of friendship, understanding

Teenagers from Iowa form strong bonds, experience local culture on exchange trip

By Zhang Yunbi | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-29 07:26
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Chinese and US students pose for a group photo after learning table tennis skills at Shijiazhuang Foreign Language School on April 20. ZHANG YUNBI/CHINA DAILY

Stronger together

As a key promoter of the China tours, Sarah Lande is one of Xi's "old friends" from Iowa who hosted Xi in Muscatine when he first visited the US in 1985 as a county-level official.

After a reunion with the president in San Francisco in November, Lande wrote to Xi and expressed her hope that the Muscatine High School students could join the youth exchange program.

In January, Xi replied that he welcomed the school's students participating in the program.

When talking about what the US students could learn from the trip, Lande said she expected them to "appreciate China through their own eyes, how they are growing, how we are together, how we are similar, and then how we are different".

"There's so many opportunities to work and cooperate with students and learn from them all over the world," she said in a video message prerecorded for the trip.

Lande also had a welcome message for the exchange students from China. "We want to share our culture with you, our music, our environment, and show you our friendship," she said.

"So please come so we can share with you what you've been sharing with us, and build the foundation between our countries even stronger," she added.

During the latest exchange, the Chinese hosts learned more about the US as the delegation promoted their local culture through gifts they had prepared. Among them were colorful, delicate pearl buttons, as the Mississippi River town of Muscatine produces a large number of them.

Another intriguing gift was a badge promoting Iowa Corn, with a corn pattern on it.

"This is from our Iowa Corn Growers Association. We just want to make sure everybody is aware that Iowa corn is our top export," said Castle, the school principal.

At a local performing arts center, the guests from Iowa were overwhelmed by a multimedia musical performance called China Impression, which was choreographed and created by teachers and students from the host school.

The hour-long show featured the school's classical orchestra and its Chinese traditional orchestra on the same stage.

Dressed in costumes, the student performers presented examples of Chinese cultural heritage, such as poetry from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), conveyed through songs and readings.

In the school's gym, it was the Chinese students' turn to be amazed by their US peers who showed great proficiency at a table tennis practice session.

All the students also enjoyed a master class given by Lu Yuansheng, a former head coach of China's national women's table tennis team.

While table tennis is popular in China, there are fewer opportunities for US teenagers to get to love the sport, Lu said. "Some of the kids are just beginners, so I just taught them some ABCs and how to get some practice going at home, such as tossing and catching the ball against a wall," he told China Daily. "It's quite a fun sport, and it has great benefits for their eyesight, too."

Chinese and US students learn to make dumplings at Shijiazhuang Foreign Language School on April 20. ZHANG CAN/XINHUA

Warm home visit

Visits to the homes of ordinary Chinese families added a deeper personal touch to the US students' trip.

Brynn Castle, who is due to start studying at college soon, was invited to visit the home of Zhang Xinyi, the Chinese student she was partnered with, the night before leaving Hebei.

"It was a really cool experience to see how their home is laid out and the similarities and differences between their house and my home," Castle said. "In my home (in Iowa), we have a lot of decorations, but they're more gifts from other people or family photos."

She said one of the main differences was that the decorations in the Chinese home had deep cultural symbolism.

"They had a lot of symbolism for good fortune. A lot of the symbols are red," she said, adding there were fish images on the wall and other omens for good fortune in the coming year.

The family members she met were "so kind" and "very welcoming", Castle said.

Before going to the apartment, Zhang's mother and cousin joined the pair and showed the US student around the neighborhood near their apartment.

They dined out, and Castle was impressed by the hot pot, as well as lamb served with a peanut sauce she had chosen.

They then went to the family home. In Zhang's room, the two girls quickly found they shared a lot more interests and had a great deal to talk about.

In the sitting room, Castle and the family members enjoyed tea and snacks, browsed photo albums and shared interesting stories about each other's families. They even exchanged tips on keeping pets.

"I didn't get to talk to them as much (directly), as the language barrier is a little difficult. But my partner translated for me, so I talked to them as much as I could," Castle said.

As they said goodbye late in the night, Zhang gave a Chinese history book and a persimmon-shaped memento to Castle as gifts. In Mandarin, the pronunciation of persimmon is similar to part of an auspicious phrase-"all things go well".

"May it bring you good luck and light your way forward," Zhang told her US friend.

Castle called it "an emotional night" and one for which she was very grateful. "If she comes to America, I would love to show her my home and show her Iowa," Castle said.

At Yuerong Park in Hebei's Xiong'an New Area, the students from both countries attended the last scheduled event of the exchange trip — a relaxed stroll around the park after lunch.

Four of the US female students were intrigued when they saw older women dancing in a meadow and decided to join in.

When it was time to say a final goodbye, many of the students who were paired together exchanged gifts, signed notes and writing pads for one another, and tightly embraced.

One of the male students from Iowa gave his Chinese friend a brand-new $20 bank note as a present.

"Go find a girl and buy her some flowers," he said in a sincere voice with a big, sheepish smile.

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