By Thom Little Ph.D.

In my last blog, I introduced you to Donna Red Wing and Bob Vanderplatt and the power of a simple cup of coffee to break down barriers, build friendships and change lives. In today’s post, I want to tell you about the power of planes, trains, busses and translators to do the same thing. 

A few weeks ago, I had the honor, along with Steve and Evelene, of accompanying twelve state legislators and their guests from across America’s geographic, political, ideological and partisan spectrums on a trip to China. Our legislative delegation included a conservative lay minister, a rancher, an environmental scientist, four lawyers and three military veterans. There were four Caucasians, two African Americans, a Puerto Rican and a Pacific Islander. There were seven Republicans and five Democrats. There were liberals and conservatives. There might even have been a progressive or two!

And yet, none of these differences mattered. Over the six days that we traveled around China on planes, trains and busses, I watched the differences that often divide us disappear. I listened as a conservative Idaho legislator shared thoughts and stories with a New York City Democrat. I laughed until I almost cried with an Alabama conservative and a Tennessee liberal as we joked about a donkey themed restaurant we would open together once we returned to the states. I sat smiling as a California legislator gathered the entire delegation on stage to remind our Chinese hosts (and us) that while we were from different parties and different states, we were all Americans. Once we spent time and broke bread together, the walls came tumbling down.

And, the walls did not just come down between the Americans. Perhaps even more interestingly, the international barriers and stereotypical thinking that often makes us hold those of different cultures at arm’s length also came down. In 1892, famed author and humorist Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

While Mr. Twain was not with us on this trip, he might as well have joined us. For an entire week, I had the pleasure of watching Mr. Twain’s quote lived out as our legislators talked (with the help of translators), ate, laughed and shared stories and dreams with leaders from sixteen different provinces across China.

After gathering in Beijing, the US delegation headed by high speed rail (at almost 200 mph) to Shijiazhuang, a “mid-sized” city of over 10 million for the opening of the fourth annual US-China Subnational Legislatures Cooperation Forum. For two days, legislators from the two countries held formal meetings to share ideas about governance, technology, environmental regulations and education with informative and enlightening presentations by leaders from both countries.

While these formal discussions were significant, and I am sure all of the participants garnered ideas that will make them better public representatives, I would suggest that this was not the most important part of the forum. The most significant action did not take place on the meeting stage, but instead at the receptions, around the dinner tables and in the hallways between sessions where participants exchanged cards, smiles, laughter and stories about their countries, their provinces and their lives. 

So, friendships were formed and bridges built between American legislators from different states as well as between American and Chinese leaders that will last long after the forum was closed. And in a geopolitical world increasingly defined by stereotypical caricatures, animosity and bitterness I can think of no better meeting outcome. Problems are not solved by countries, states or provinces, but by people. They are solved by people who build relationships of trust and are willing to listen to and learn from each other, regardless of political party, nationality, ideology or perspective. Last week, I had the honor to see that firsthand and for that, I am eternally grateful.