Call me a naive liberal, but I do think there is something to be said for going to other people's countries and getting to know them properly — which is another way of saying getting out of the tourist traps and meeting the real people.
In my own life, I lived in England for five years as an adult and don't share in the familiar Aussie tendency to bash the English — the Poms, as they are known in Oz, none too flatteringly. It didn't hurt that my own father was British and my father-in-law was too, but mostly my attitudes were influenced by making English friends. Hey, they weren't too bad, even if they did drink warm beer. (OK, so I am not beyond a bit of teasing).
It seems that the president-to-be of China Xi Jinping did something of the same sort when he came on an exchange visit to Iowa when he was just a young communist about town.
That must have been a meeting of cultures. He made a point of returning there this time on his otherwise formal state trip. Below is a rather charming story. It's the sort of thing Rick Santorum might dismiss as sitting around singing kumbaya, but it warmed my heart.
MUSCATINE, Iowa (AP) — China's vice president remembered the popcorn he'd received as a parting gift — and the strong Chinese liquor he left behind. He recalled one young girl asking whether he'd seen American movies, and being shocked when he told her he'd watched "The Godfather." And he often flashed that warm smile.
Twenty-seven years after Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping met a group of Iowa farmers and business leaders during a diplomatic exchange to this Mississippi River town, the likely future leader of the world's most populous country returned Wednesday for a brief reunion to reminisce with the first Americans he ever met.
"My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America," Xi told a group of about 16 people he referred to as "old friends."
The relaxed gathering in front of a fireplace in Roger and Sarah Lande's living room in Muscatine was a stark contrast to the more subdued, party-line approach Xi had while meeting with U.S. leaders in Washington earlier this week. During talks with President Barack Obama, members of Congress and others, Xi, 58, said little new — and did little to narrow the differences that exist between the U.S. and China on issues such as human rights.
But in Iowa, Xi had the opportunity to show a more personal side away from the tough questions on policy, trade and international relations. Those who attended the 45-minute reunion in the two-story Victorian home said Xi enthusiastically introduced Chinese government leaders traveling with him, shook everyone's hand and even made a couple light remarks. They were struck by his charm, described him as genuine and hoped his friendly approach to Midwesterners is a positive sign for the future of U.S.-China relations.
"The guy has a clairvoyant memory. It was unbelievable," said vegetable farmer Tom Hoopes, who showed Xi his asparagus and sweet potatoes during his stay in Muscatine in 1985. "I can't imagine anyone carrying himself any better. I was absolutely overwhelmed. He carries himself like a true gentleman."
The Landes hosted Xi for dinner when he visited Iowa in 1985 as a 31-year-old provincial Communist Party official hoping to learn about manufacturing, crops and livestock practices and raise his people's standard of living. His return to Muscatine in the middle of his U.S. trip comes as he is preparing to become party leader this fall and assume China's presidency in 2013.
Photo: Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping greets Natalie Kimberley and her eight-month old son Austin during a visit to the Kimberly family farm on Feb. 16 in Maxwell, Iowa. Looking on is Martha Kimberley, center. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool)