Building a bridge of hearts in the heartland of the US

Updated: 2013-10-22 10:48

By Chen Weihua (China Daily USA)

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Building a bridge of hearts in the heartland of the US

Zhou Benshun, Party chief of Hebei province, shares a laugh with Sarah Lande of Muscatine, Iowa, during a boat tour along the Mississippi River on Monday. Lande was the host when current Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Muscatine in 1985 as Party chief of Zhengding county of Hebei province. Xi paid a return visit in February last year as China’s vice-president. [Photo by Chen Weihua / China Daily]

When current Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a return visit to Muscatine, Iowa, in February of last year, he recalled his fond memories of his trip there in 1985, which was his first visit to the US.

Xi told the local folks: “You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with.”

“To me, you are America,” Xi said.

That might also be the feeling of some 200 folks from Hebei who are currently visiting Iowa to mark the 30th anniversary of the sister state relationship between Hebei and Iowa. Most of them are also visiting the US for the first time.

Driving on the prairie, many were amazed to see the large farms along the road and the gigantic agricultural machinery operating in the fields. In Hebei and most of China’s countryside, farmers plough only a small piece of land. On average, each family has probably just one acre of land to farm.

So when Hebei provincial Party Secretary Zhou Benshun led a group on Monday afternoon to visit Kimberley Farms Inc in Maxwell, Building a bridge of hearts in the heartland of the USIowa, the group on the trip had up-close contact with American farmers.

The Kimberley family farms 4,000 acres and owns a third of them, planting mostly soybeans and corn.

Zhou, who took office in March, had a lot of questions for Rick and Grant Kimberley, the father and son, about their farm business, everything from government subsidies to sales, since Hebei is also one of the largest agricultural provinces in China. It was also one of the reasons why the Iowa and Hebei set up their sister ties.

Zhou believes China and the US have a lot to cooperate about in agriculture, since China has a huge population, but little arable land, while the US, such as the state of Iowa, has vast tracts of fertile land, but a relatively small population. He said China has a lot to learn from the US in agriculture.

Michael Naig, Iowa’s deputy agriculture secretary, said the past 30 years of sistership cooperation has benefited both Hebei and Iowa and he believes there is much more that both can do.

For Grant Kimberley, China, which buys 25 percent of US soybean exports, is a huge market for their products.

“I’ve been farming for 40 years and connected with the land here. But I’m in the farm business and connected with you as well,” said Rick Kimberley, father of Grant, recalling his conversation with then Vice-President Xi a year ago and describing Xi as very knowledgeable about agriculture.

Xi spent years working as a farmer in his youth. He visited Kimberley Farms during his visit to Iowa last year. And the Kimberleys were happy to learn on Monday that their farm is the best known American farm in China, as Zhou told them.

Early in the morning, Muscatine mayor DeWayne Hopkins recalled the many bottoms-up he had Sunday evening at the welcome banquet. Bottoms-up is a common practice at Chinese dinner tables.

“I had great bottoms-up many times,” he said.

“In Muscatine, we have a bridge across the Mississippi, it’s a physical bridge. In this room, we built an invisible bridge, a bridge to Hebei,” he told the Hebei group in a Monday morning reception along the Mississippi.

“Not like the physical bridge, our bridge to Hebei is in our heart,” said Hopkins.

Hopkins said other cities in the area are looking at Muscatine with admiration because of its close association with China.

While 16 Muscatine students were invited to China this summer for a summer program to study language, culture and history, dozens of students from Shijiazhuang Foreign Language School were also in Muscatine in the past week participating in cultural exchange program.

At Muscatine Community College, Yin Juan, an English teacher from Zhengding Middle School in Hebei province, is getting ready to teach a Chinese culture course.

Describing Xi as the one who sowed the seeds for the friendly cooperation, Zhou called on everyone to be disseminators of the seeds of friendship and cooperation.

Sarah Lande, who hosted Xi back in 1985, was clearly one of them. Her name card described herself as “Old Friends”, a term Xi used when he described the people who hosted him 28 years ago.

Lande accepted some 60 interviews during and after Xi’s visit last year. She has busy these days running from one event to another marking the 30th anniversary.

Asked how much Muscatine has changed since Xi’s visit, Lande said: “Oh, boy, it’s incredible.”


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