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A great lesson in the magic of embracing ties
Last Updated: 2014-03-08 07:00 | China Daily
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Several years ago, I was enjoying one of my best vacations ever - a long road trip in Iran. It was an unusual choice for an American, a fact driven home when my little group visited a ninth-century Christian monastery near the northwest border with Azerbaijan.

Except for two Japanese professional photographers, I was the only foreigner on the site, and perhaps in the entire area. As we strolled across the rooftop of the beautiful gothic monastery, however, two school buses pulled up below and a swarm of 8-year-old boys on a day outing suddenly surrounded us.

If they were fascinated by the remains of a cloister originally built more than 1,000 years ago, that was nothing compared to finding an American on top of it. What were the odds of that?

The kids and their teachers crowded around as if David Beckham were giving a news conference, a sense heightened when one boy asked, "What is your favorite European soccer team?"

I had to confess that, like many Americans, I didn't know much about that sport. As disappointment spread across the sea of young faces during the translation, I said, "However..."

Bending over, I reached into my backpack and pulled out the souvenir I'd bought the night before in Tabriz: the green-and-white jersey of the Iranian national team. As I held up the No 9 shirt over my head, suddenly a hundred boys were screaming and jumping around like popcorn in a hot pan.

Today, when I think of Iran, I don't think of politics or nuclear debates or even the 1979 US hostage crisis. The image that floods my brain, and warms my heart, is that crowd of young faces, so delighted and amazed that I was interested in their national sports hero.

That was my first and best lesson in the magic of people-to-people diplomacy. I tell that story a lot, and I suspect those boys, now rowdy teenagers, tell it often, too.

Such personal contacts have been embraced by governments around the world, including China and my home country. US President Barack Obama, disturbed to learn that there were eight times more Chinese students in the United States than the other way around, launched his 100,000 Strong Initiative to encourage American youth to come to China for college programs. The Chinese government promptly committed 10,000 "Bridge Scholarships" for US students to study here.

As a US citizen, I'm blessed by the fact that most of the world is open and welcoming, often without the need for a visa except for a quick passport stamping upon entry. My Chinese friends are not so lucky, but since the country's opening-up began more than three decades ago, that's changing — and today's leaders have made engagement with the world an urgent priority.

Recent agreements have made it much easier for mainlanders to travel to Taiwan and to Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Indonesia. The US has cut the time it takes for Chinese to get a visa from months to a few days, and it's now possible to apply for a UK and an EU visa simultaneously.

Chinese companies and performing artists, meanwhile, are known around the globe. When Westerners who have never left their home countries hear the word "China", they are more likely to think of Huawei or Lang Lang, perhaps, than their last order for General Tso's takeaway. Former US ambassador to China Gary Locke liked to say that every American in China was an ambassador, and every Chinese in the US was, too.

The best efforts on all sides won't make all conflicts and disagreements go away. But if China and other countries continue to open up, we will think of each other as people — whether that's President Xi Jinping with a bunch of Iowa corn farmers, a famous Chinese pianist at the Grammy Awards or an American nobody ever heard of with a crowd of primary-school soccer fans in a remote Iranian village.

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