DES MOINES, Iowa — The last time China’s soon-to-be leader visited Iowa, he slept in a bedroom with green shag carpeting and Star Trek character cutouts on the walls. He ate eggs with a spoon because his host forgot the chopsticks.
But apparently Xi Jinping remembered the 1985 stay fondly because he insisted on returning this week to Muscatine, a small farming community he toured to learn about crop and livestock practices.
Back then, he was a young Communist Party leader seeking ideas to help his agriculture-rich region of northern China. Now the nation’s vice president, he made certain to add Muscatine to his jam-packed itinerary so he could reunite with the same Americans who showed him around the region’s hog and cattle operations and its abundant corn and soybean fields.
“I’m flabbergasted that he would take time out of his busy schedule and come back to Muscatine,” said Eleanor Dvorchak, whose family hosted him for two nights.
Although Dvorchak and her husband have since moved to Florida, they planned to return Wednesday for Xi’s hour-long visit, and several other local farmers and residents he encountered will be there, too.
Some local officials were encouraged that specifically Iowa agriculture was to play such a prominent part in a trip by the future leader of the world’s most populous country.
“It sends a signal that the new leader is not a stranger to the U.S. and that he has experience and familiarity with America by reaching right into the heartland,” said David Shorr, a foreign-policy specialist at the Stanley Foundation.
Xi is expected to ascend to the nation’s highest office next year and could lead China over the next decade. His schedule called for him to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday in Washington before flying to Iowa.
China has become an increasingly important trading partner for the United States. It purchased $20 billion in U.S. agriculture exports last year, making it the top buyer of farm goods.
In 1985, Xi stayed with the Dvorchaks, their 15-year-old daughter, and their dog in a four-bedroom ranch home. The Star Trek-themed room had been left unchanged after the couple’s sons went to college.
Eleanor Dvorchak, now 72, recalled a handsome 31-year-old man who was calm and intensely focused on learning as much as possible during his brief trip. He kept busy until late each day, so all he needed when he returned in the evening was peace and quiet, she said.
“My job was to provide him with breakfast and a quiet place for him to relax and think, to give him time to pull his thoughts together for the next day,” she said. “It was just a pleasure to have him in our home. He was very undemanding.”
The language barrier made conversation difficult, but Xi was interested in touring the home and seemed impressed with the two-car garage and large concrete driveway that had a basketball hoop, she said.
She speculated that Xi wanted to return because volunteers in Muscatine were generous with their time as they showed the Chinese delegation their farms and the community, and invited them into their homes.
Cynthia Maeglin, who hosted two men who accompanied Xi in 1985, said she and her husband were accustomed to inviting overseas guests into their home since they hosted exchange students after studying abroad in high school.
Xi and the Chinese guests would have breakfast, then leave for the day to visit farms and businesses. The men got an up-close look at small-town life, and Maeglin believes it stuck with them.
“I think from just being in our home, they could see how we lived,” Maeglin said. “At the time, our youngest son was still living at home. They could see how our family life was.”
Sarah Lande, whose family hosted a dinner during that visit, is organizing the reunion at the request of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. She plans to gather about 16 people for tea or champagne to reminisce.
After the Muscatine visit, Xi is to fly to Des Moines for a reception with political and business leaders and a dinner hosted by Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
On Thursday, he was scheduled to attend the first U.S.-China Agriculture Symposium in Des Moines. China’s minister of agriculture, Han Changfu, was also expected to attend.
Branstad compares the significance of Xi’s visit to the 1979 Iowa visit of Pope John Paul II and the 1959 farm stop by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
“The fact that he’s going to be the leader of China, he obviously has a very friendly and positive feeling about Iowa,” Brandstad said. “It could be a tremendous asset for us going forward.”
Printed on Wednesday, February 15, 2012 as: China's future leader revisits Iowa town with fond memories