Muscatine, Iowa, High School student Cole Loos had never traveled beyond the United States when the question put before him in January was, “Would you like to go to China?”
“I was lucky I had my passport to go,” Loos explained to VOA.
The invitation, he learned, wasn’t for a date in the distant future. If he and 24 other students from his high school were to make the trip, they had less than 10 days to commit and prepare to fly.
“It was very spontaneous,” Loos said.
Spontaneous, but by no means an accident.
In 1985, Sarah Lande hosted a group from China visiting Muscatine for several days on an agricultural research tour of the United States. One of the participants was Xi Jinping, now president of the People’s Republic of China. Then, Xi was party committee secretary of Zhengding County, Hebei Province. Lande helped organize his stay in Muscatine.
“Good things happen when you are a good friend to people, I guess,” Lande said during a recent interview in her Muscatine home, where in 2012, Xi — by then vice president of China — returned to visit his “old friends” from Iowa.
"Old friend" is a common phrase China’s communist party uses as a tribute to foreigners considered helpful to their interests. It’s also an expression of nostalgia for longtime companions or acquaintances.
During Xi’s 2012 reunion with the “old friends” he met during his first trip to the U.S., they spent an evening in front of a warm fire in Lande’s living room remembering their eventful visit some 30 years earlier.
Then last November, Lande was invited to a dinner on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco. In his remarks at the event, Xi expressed his desire to welcome thousands of American students to China, prompting Lande to follow up with a letter to her “old friend.”
“And I got a reply to that letter,” she explained.
So, Lande took the opportunity to advocate for Muscatine.
“I hope Muscatine could be a part of this. So, that probably was the incentive for this invite,” she said.
In January, the China Daily reported that Xi was extending a personal invitation for students and staff from Muscatine High School to come to China.
The invitation came with few strings attached to the all-expenses paid trip. They spent eight days visiting with local students, touring the Great Wall of China and other landmarks and cities, and participated in a conference for students learning the Mandarin language.
The trip comes amid increased tensions between the United States and China in the wake of tariffs imposed on the communist country during the Trump administration; the overflight of a Chinese observation balloon across the United States in early 2023; China’s warming relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin amid the ongoing war in Ukraine; and the country’s ongoing human rights abuses of the predominately Muslim Uyghur minority in China’s western territories.
“Both of our countries, you could say, are trying to be number one,” Lande says. “I think our challenge is to grow a curiosity and understanding and find ways to work together."
She believes trips and culture exchanges build bridges and encourage dialogue that could lead to change.
“I hope if there are ways that we find that China is really transgressing, we can at least bring that up, so it will not lead to conflict,” she said.
Loos said it was hard to find any sign of U.S.- China tensions during their trip.
“You felt very special over there,” said Loos, who is in his second year of Mandarin language studies at Muscatine High School.
“Actually, I'm very, very proud of them. Seems like they grew super-fast in a few days,” said Heidi Kuo, Loos’ Mandarin teacher.
Kuo is originally from Taiwan and accompanied the students on the trip. Of the many lessons they learned, she hopes one stands out.
“The world is super big, not only us here,” she said.
Ann Edkin grew up in Muscatine, which has a population of about 23,000 and is situated along the banks of the Mississippi River. She now teaches physical education at Muscatine High School and was one of four staff members who made the trip to China.
She thinks the connection between her small town and China’s leader is a baffling but welcome relationship.
“The fact that he came here, that’s cool,” she told VOA. “But to have that ongoing relationship, it’s not just a blip, but a continuing relationship that makes it so unique and special.”
As more students prepare for more trips to China, Lande’s next goal is to encourage her “old friend” to return to Muscatine, which she thinks is a perfect location for a future summit with U.S. President Joe Biden.
“We’re open,” she said. “Xi Jinping is open. He might be willing to come here. I think Biden would. Muscatine would welcome it!”
A potential venue could be the Muscatine home where Xi stayed in 1985, now preserved as a museum — mostly visited by Chinese tourists.