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July 5, 2011

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Texas kids take eye-opening China tour

FORTY-THREE American students from Texas are checking out China and clearing up misunderstandings as part of the US People-to-People Ambassador program.

The idea is simple but grand: As ordinary people from different countries get to know each other, mutual understanding and appreciation grows, misunderstandings are cleared up and this exchange contributes to better state-to-state relations.

In Shanghai, for three days, Texans met new people, experienced new culture, and took in sights and food. It's a home-stay trip and they lived with local families.

After Shanghai, the group of students went on to Suzhou in Jiangsu Province and the canal town of Wuzhen in Zhejiang Province and is now in Hong Kong; they will return to the US tomorrow.

The program is part of People-to-People International, which sends around 1,000 students to China each year. It's open to students aged from 11 to 18 and sends them around the world. It was founded by President Dwight E. Eisenhower in 1956 and has 500,000 alumni.

"It's incredible and life-changing to be here in China," says Dylan Keeler, 12. "It's amazing to see the country and its people in person."

Born in South Africa and raised in the United States, the eighth-grader has been impressed to see so much greenery around China, not too common in Texas, which is hot and dry.

"Before coming here, I mistakenly thought that in China the government would pick jobs for people and people would have less freedom," Keeler says.

"However, by talking to a variety of local people and learning about traditions and culture in China, I feel that (view) is entirely wrong. I'm glad that I can learn in-depth about China by myself," he is quick to add.

In Shanghai, the students visited the Bund and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. They also visited senior citizens' homes and mentally challenged students. They put on a dance show for senior citizens and played with students.

Gabrielle Maldonado, aged 12, arrived in a rainstorm, not too common in Texas.

"This city (of Shanghai) is full of surprises, it's a once-in-a-lifetime journey. I won't have another chance like this to take part in so many activities.

She is the first person in her family to travel abroad, and she feels very lucky.

Before visiting Shanghai, the group toured Beijing and Xi'an, capital city of Shaanxi Province, and stayed at villagers' houses in Shaanxi.

"The Forbidden City is so beautiful. In Beijing we also learned to practice kung fu from a master," Maldonado recalls. "But the best part is home stay. I eat food in their houses and take part in their culture."

Both Maldonado and Keeler view themselves as future leaders - Maldonado wants to become an environmental lawyer, Keeler wants to be a history professor.

"People look at you and you are the passion of the United States," says Maldonado. "I enjoy interacting with other cultures. I do think the friendship we have here in China will make a difference to the world. Each piece of understanding will make a difference."

Instructor and guide Hou Wei says that good attitude, social skills, patience and concern for community well-being are important for participants.

"It is good to see young Americans, who are the future of the United States, show us who they are and it's important that they enjoy meeting people both young and old, in different jobs.

They can get a realistic view of China without misunderstanding," he says. "Let's make peace through understanding.

People to People has benefited from a legacy of White House support. Eight US presidents have served as the honorary chairmen of People to People International.


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