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Xi's ties with Iowa remain strong since his 1985 visit

By MINLU ZHANG in Muscatine, Iowa | China Daily | Updated: 2024-01-04 06:55
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Gary Dvorchak, son of Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak, who hosted Xi Jinping during his 1985 visit to Muscatine in the US state of Iowa, introduces the Sino-US Friendship House to visitors on Sept 17, 2015. BAO DANDAN/XINHUA

The author Mark Twain once described the memorable sunsets in Muscatine, a small city on the banks of the Mississippi River in the US state of Iowa, as particularly memorable.

In his 1883 book Life on the Mississippi, Twain wrote: "And I remember Muscatine — still more pleasantly — for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equaled them."

Today, a large corn processing plant operates in Muscatine on the banks of the river. President Xi Jinping visited the plant in 1985, when he was Party chief of Zhengding county in Hebei province, and learned about agriculture.

Most people in Muscatine, whose population is around 24,000, are farmers or hold jobs related to agriculture. Farms and wind turbines are the most common sights in the city, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Des Moines, the capital of Iowa.

Dan Stein, chairman of the Muscatine-China Initiatives Committee and a native of Muscatine, conceded that life in the small city is slow-paced.

"There isn't much going on in Muscatine," he said.

However, nearly 39 years ago, when Xi led an agricultural delegation from Hebei, his trip to Iowa had an impact on many people in Muscatine.

"It changed my life," said Stein, a banker whose clients are mostly local farmers, and who is also involved now in the import and export business between China and the United States' Midwest.

In 1985, the trip's organizers contacted Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak and said they were looking for homestays in Muscatine for a Chinese delegation. The Dvorchaks, whose sons were away at college, happened to have two bedrooms available. Xi, who led the delegation to Iowa, stayed the night in the bedroom of Gary Dvorchak, who is now an investor and has been living in Beijing for more than a decade.

The homestay occurred before the internet era and, as the years passed, the Dvorchak family lost track of the delegation member. Then, in 2012, the family discovered that the young man who had stayed in their home years before was China's vice-president.

Xi said he wanted to go to Iowa and visit his friends there again, and a reunion was held in Iowa in 2012 when he visited the US as vice-president.

"We were all just surprised to encounter someone who has stayed in your home and then later, he rises to such greatness and becomes so famous.... Of course, we're happy for him that his career went so well. But everyone was just like, 'Wow, I can't believe this really happened'," Gary Dvorchak told China Daily in a recent exclusive interview.

Now, walking into the bedroom at 2911 Bonnie Drive — the address where Xi stayed in 1985 — a visitor will see a massive oak tree still standing outside the window.

The house, which is white with red bricks, features a master bedroom and two guest bedrooms. Xi slept in one of the guest bedrooms at the end of a hallway. Today, the home is a museum called the Sino-US Friendship House.

"I can envision him being in America for the first time, looking outside and, obviously, the architecture and home decor are very different from China. And this huge oak tree back then probably was not so big, but it continues to grow," Stein said.

Gary Dvorchak said his room, decorated with a Star Trek theme, was "very much the room of a child".

"I was a huge Star Trek fan. I love science fiction, so I had shelves of Star Trek and Star Wars models," he added.

In 2012, when Xi returned to Muscatine, he told those who had gathered, whom he has affectionately referred to as "old friends": "You were the first group of Americans that I came into contact with. My impression of the country came from you."

Sarah Lande, an 85-year-old Muscatine resident who helped coordinate Xi's 1985 visit and met with him, also recalled that Xi told the friends gathered in 2012, "To me, you are America."

During the 2012 reunion, "everyone was a little nervous, but mainly happy and very relaxed. In his role as vice-president, he came there as a friend. There was no talk about policy; the talk was (focused on) reminiscing," said Dvorchak.

In November, Xi once again reunited with his old friends from Iowa, this time in San Francisco, where he and US President Joe Biden held a summit.

"There was genuine happiness, so you could see the smile on his face, he was really enjoying it," said Dvorchak. "What's really wonderful is that, to him it has personal meaning. It's not just publicity. It's the people he really cares about from the experience he had way back then."

Xi wrote in a letter to Lande, who is also author of a 2022 memoir titled Old Friends: The Xi Jinping-Iowa Story, "The Chinese and American people are both great people, and our friendship is not only a valuable asset, but also an important foundation for the development of bilateral relations."

Because of Xi's trip, Muscatine, an agricultural city in the heartland of the US, became a bond for Sino-US friendship exchanges.

Every year, students at Muscatine High School participate in study programs in China. In 2013, at Xi's suggestion, Muscatine became a sister city of Zhengding county, where Xi was serving when he first visited Muscatine.

In 2015, the Muscatine Center opened in Jinan, Shandong province. In addition, the Musser Public Library in Muscatine houses over 500 books on Chinese culture, some in both English and Chinese, according to Muscatine's official website.

"This whole story has inspired people in China and in America, but especially people in China to come to America and learn what it was Xi Jinping experienced that was so great that (they think) 'hey, I want to go and see what this is'," Dvorchak said.

"It has become an inspiration for people to learn about each other, and it goes in the other direction, that people from Iowa go to China all the time. The house is really a great inspiration to promote people meeting each other."

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