Youth, education exchanges "big part of way" moving China-U.S. ties forward: Utah delegates
  ·  2024-01-15  ·   Source: Xinhua News Agency

Miriam Gubler, a student of Utah's Cascade Elementary School, speaks with a student in Shanghai Soong Ching Ling School on January 12 (XINHUA)

Youth exchanges play "a big part" in moving the U.S.-China relationship forward, said visiting delegates from the U.S. state of Utah.

"Having people who have shared interests, shared desires and shared needs to equally interact and get to know each other is a sure way to improve our relationship," said Michael Leavitt, who led a Utah delegation in a culture exchange-themed visit in Beijing and Shanghai from January 7 to 13.

The 13-member team included officials, scholars, language program specialists and school children from the state.

"The recent meeting of our presidents was a great step forward ... and the time is right for our countries to once again come together and to be able to set a good example," said Leavitt, who served as Utah governor from 1993 to 2003 and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2005 to 2009.

Despite difficulties in bilateral relations, "the people feel with one heart ... and there's no question that the pathway to nation's resuming positive relationships is through people-to-people interaction," he told Xinhua.

In November 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech in the United States that China is ready to invite 50,000 young Americans to China on exchange and study programs in the next five years.

Leavitt said the plan's value is that these students "ultimately will have firsthand experiences with Chinese families, with Chinese children, with Chinese people, and experiences that become meaningful to them as people."

Utah Senate President J. Stuart Adams is also a fan of that plan. Young people should not be "just looking within the boundaries," he said.

"So much communication right now is through the Internet and through social media. But we all know it's hard to communicate if you can't do it face to face."

Adams said the visit allowed him to meet old friends in China and build new friendships and trust via language programs.

Utah now has the most extensive Chinese language immersion program in the United States, with 35 schools of 300 to 400 students studying Chinese. The program has been in place since 2009, with almost 20,000 students having participated.

The students receive math, science and social studies content in Chinese in the early grades. They are also encouraged to build penpals with Chinese friends. In 2020, students at Utah's Cascade Elementary School wrote New Year cards to President Xi in Chinese and received a reply.

"The immersion teachers in Utah are very good at engaging with our students to reach out to friends in China," said Jeffrey Ringer, associate international vice president of Brigham Young University. He said interest in learning the Chinese language "has not declined at our university at all" in the past years.

"We want our people to be linguistically fluent and culturally fluent. Cultural fluency only happens when you can be on the ground with people," Ringer said.

"There are many different depictions of China that Americans may see on the media. I just hope that more people are able to experience China firsthand for themselves so they can form their own views," said Ringer, who travels to China very often, including to Shanghai. "Every time I come here, there's more to Shanghai. It's like peeling layers on an onion. There's always more to discover and more to understand about it."

It is now "a period when we're focused on youth and on the sub-national ... So that's just what our society's needed for those of all ages and all backgrounds," said Gerrit W. Gong. The former Asia director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies was excited to share some group photos of the Utah delegation.

Ping-pong diplomacy was once a great symbol of China-U.S. ties. Today, "the new symbol is people doing things together; is mutually beneficial learning; is the appreciation for who we each are," said Gong, who also worked as a special assistant in the U.S. State Department and a special assistant to two ambassadors at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

"I think of youth traveling to the Great Wall and coming to the Forbidden City ... and the rising generations in universities and in laboratories and doing many things together," said Gong.

"I just had my seventieth birthday, and I'm very young at heart. Whatever our chronological ages, we all need to see the world with new eyes and new hopes and new expectations," he added.

Peyton Shields, 18, traveled to China for the first time with the delegation. He has been learning Chinese for 11 years.

This direct experience is a chance to "talk to each other and see what each other's culture is," said the high-school student after a joint musical performance with Chinese kids at Shanghai Soong Ching Ling School.

"It helps us to see how similar we can be, so that in the future, when we have differences, we will be able to understand each other better," said Shields.

"When people interact at a personal level, the fear goes away, and the ability to think poorly of the other goes away. That will be critical for our countries going forward," said Brent James, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine.

"In some sense, we define what the world is going to look like," said James. "We can create a world of prosperity and peace. We can build that kind of a future as opposed to some other people building a different future."

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