MUSCATINE, the United States, Feb. 11 (Xinhua) -- In the conference hall of Merrill Hotel in downtown Muscatine, decorated with Chinese knots, paper cuttings and couplets, Sarah Lande extended her greetings to the Chinese people on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year.
"I wish you a happy Chinese Lunar New Year ... I'm so excited that the consulate and people from all over China have brought this celebration to Muscatine," said Lande, a friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping for decades, as residents of the small town on the Mississippi River in the U.S. mid-western state of Iowa gathered to ring in and celebrate the Year of the Dragon.
Earlier in the day, students of the Art Troupe of the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China (RDFZ) visited Muscatine High School, where they were greeted by American students with symphony and jazz performances in the school's auditorium. They then visited the Sino-U.S. Friendship House.
President Xi visited Muscatine twice, in 1985 and 2012, and has forged a strong friendship with Lande and local residents.
At a welcome dinner organized by U.S. friendly organizations in San Francisco in November 2023, Xi recalled his first face-to-face contact with American people in Iowa, saying China is ready to invite 50,000 young Americans to China on exchange and study programs in the next five years to increase exchanges between the two peoples, especially between the youth.
Upon hearing Xi's speech at the scene, Lande wrote a letter to the Chinese president expressing the hope that Muscatine High School could participate in the program. Xi replied with a welcoming response.
Twenty-four students from Muscatine High School then visited China in late January this year, Principal Ryan Castle told Xinhua. They visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hebei Province. A group of 50 more students is scheduled to visit China in April, and Castle will lead the group himself this time.
Leo Reginator, a sophomore at Muscatine High School, is one of the students visiting China in January. "It was the first time I was in China. The mountains really impressed me," he told Xinhua.
"We interacted with three schools, and we got partnered up with people. We all talked about different stuff, what they do in China and what we do in the United States," he said.
"It is a life-changing experience," Reginator said. "I would love to go back and explore even more, and it was an awesome experience."
It is ninth-grader Sienna Stoneking's first trip to China in January. "It was an amazing trip, and we got to see so many cool places, and honestly, the culture was beautiful," said Stoneking.
"My favorite part was getting to see the other students and just talk about like how they live their day-to-day lives compared to how we live ours," Stoneking said. "It was amazing getting to see the different things they do for Chinese New Year and getting to make different types of foods."
"I even learned how to make a Chinese knot," she said. "There's a lot of things that I wish I wanted to learn about."
Stoneking is impressed by Chinese students' work ethic. "I definitely look forward to learning more Chinese after this trip ... The future is up to the youth. The young need to experience different cultures in their eyes. I think that this is helping us create a better understanding and making lifelong friendships."
"If I have the opportunity, I would love to go study in college in China," she said.
The auditorium of Muscatine was packed with residents, old and young, in the evening. RDFZ Art Troupe presented a Chinese New Year Gala of folk dances, Chinese martial arts, and aerobic gymnastics here, drawing big cheers and applauses.
Chinese students were overwhelmed by the warmth. "A local resident invited me to stay at her house," Ma Mayue told Xinhua. "They are so nice."
This was the first time for Ding Xingyue to spend Chinese New Year away from home; the sophomore was a bit nervous. But joining the teachers and classmates, feeling the U.S. local customs, and interacting with American friends gave her a different "taste of Chinese New Year."
Qiuxin Guangyao became friends with an American peer during the trip. "He has learned Chinese for five to six years, and we talk fluently in Chinese," the sophomore told Xinhua. "The opportunity is rare. Our friendship will continue."
The year 2023 marked the 40th anniversary of China's Hebei Province and the Hawkeye State knotting sister province-state relationship. Over the past 40 years, remarkable results have been made in areas like economic and trade cooperation and cultural exchanges, said Chinese Consul General in Chicago Zhao Jian.
This relationship has benefitted people on both sides and is an example of friendly exchanges on a local level between China and the United States, Zhao added.
Terry Branstad, former U.S. ambassador to China, called the plan a great idea to invite young Americans to China on exchange and study programs over the next five years.
"If you build friendships, you build trust and understanding," he told Xinhua. ■