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Visit to China gives students new insights

Trip inspires young guests from Iowa to learn more about country's culture

By MAY ZHOU in Houston | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-02-20 09:43

Muscatine students learn how to make dumplings in Beijing during their 10-day trip to China in January. CHINA DAILY

Apollo Hayes, a junior at Muscatine High School in Iowa, said she liked her 10-day trip to China so much that she is considering applying to a university in China.

"I'm very thankful to Chinese President Xi Jinping for what he's done to get us there. Without him, I probably wouldn't have learned a lot about China that I know now. And I wouldn't have probably started looking at colleges in China where I could train," Hayes said in a phone interview.

Late last month, 24 students from the small Iowa city of Muscatine took a trip to China as President Xi's invited guests. Their journey was initiated by local resident Sarah Lande, who, as Xi's personal friend, wrote him a letter requesting that Muscatine students be included in his initiative of inviting 50,000 US students to experience China in the next five years.

Xi replied to Lande in early January with a firm yes, and Hayes found herself and other schoolmates flying to China soon after.

Heidi Guo, who teaches Chinese at Muscatine High School and accompanied the students to China, said they went to Beijing, Shijiazhuang and Shanghai and visited schools, museums and universities. They also saw sights such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

Hayes said she was excited upon learning of the opportunity to visit China. "But I was also a bit scared because a lot of older people's words of China are negative. … Once I got there, it was so nice. Everyone was really welcoming and warm."

She ended up having a wonderful time, Hayes said, and she especially was impressed by some of the museums.

She was particularly struck by what she saw in an urban design museum in Shanghai. "It was really cool to see how these places have them already planned out for the future and how they're already trying to implement the new and the old altogether."

The good memories from meeting a lot of people were among her favorite parts of the trip, said Hayes. "I met a lot of people from different schools, and they were really cool. We got to learn a lot about each other's cultures and the differences about our schools."

Yamileth Monte, a sophomore, shared Hayes' sentiments. "I really liked getting to go there because it helped me connect with everybody from that culture. I was able to practice my Mandarin while they were able to practice their English, and I really liked how we could find a connection with both of our languages," said Monte.

Hayes and Monte said they have downloaded WeChat to keep in touch with new friends they made in China. "We've been exchanging photos and having conversations about the differences between America and China," said Monte.

"We're still in high school and we won't be grown adults for a few years, but it's nice to see how even as kids we can talk and understand each other despite not being raised in the same culture and not being raised with the same manners," said Hayes.

Monte was especially impressed with meeting the vice-mayor of Shanghai and chancellors of different universities. "It's great how they took the time out of their days to connect with the younger generation to help form that connection between China and America. It showed me that they cared, and it makes me want to go back there."

Seeing China in person brought the students new perspectives.

Sienna Stoneking said she didn't realize how big China is until she got there.

"It's a whole different thing to really be able to see Chinese culture firsthand. I really enjoyed getting to see the Chinese New Year traditions," Stoneking said, referring to learning how to make dumplings, spring rolls and Chinese knots.

"To go and see a different country was really amazing," she said.

Struck by openness

Monte was struck by China's openness. "Wherever you go, it's in Chinese, but it's also in English, and I was really surprised to see that."

She also enjoyed sightseeing. "They said Yu Garden was one of the oldest gardens in China. It was so nice of them to share such a special thing with us."

Leo Regennitter was impressed by the skyscrapers and the city traffic. "It was awesome going to the places. And you don't see stuff like that in Iowa," he said. He was also delighted to find out that the Chinese students he talked to also like Taylor Swift and enjoy TV shows such as The Office and Friends, as he does.

Hayes was surprised at how delicious Chinese food tasted there. "I tried a lot of things that I didn't realize I would like, and now I really can't wait to make a lot of it at home," she said.

The trip piqued some students' interest in learning more about China. Hayes has already started talking to her principal about applying to a school in China to study the language and learn more about Chinese history and culture.

Stoneking, a freshman and three years away from college, is also considering the possibility of studying in China. "I talked to the president of some university there; I would absolutely love to go to college there someday," she said.

Guo said about 150 students in her school have chosen Chinese as a foreign language, and a lot of the students who made the trip to China have taken Chinese lessons.

"The trip opened their eyes to China, and they got to learn something about their counterparts in China. I could tell the trip definitely made some impact on a lot of them," Guo said.

A few students from the trip will join others from the Muscatine area to visit China in the summer again for about a month to learn more about its language and culture, she said.

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