Their memories still fresh and full of enthusiasm, Chicago high school students Thursday shared their experiences from their China trip this summer, saying that meeting the Chinese people has changed how they view the country.
It was truly an "unforgettable" experience that gave them a deeper understanding of the Asian giant which they had previously known only from schoolbooks, said the 16 Walter Payton College Prep high school students lucky enough to be invited to China as guests of President Hu Jintao.
"It was a wonderful experience, and I look forward to future trips," said Alek Rinholm, a student who was excited about sharing his summer adventure with the folks back home.
"What was really remarkable to me is the similarities that we share between us and these Chinese students literally on the other side of the world. You'd think there'd be a big difference, but there really isn't," Rinholm said, explaining that the students he met in China shared the same passion for learning and extracurricular activities that he has.
Over the course of two weeks, Rinholm and his classmates toured not only China's famous scenic sites like the Great Wall, which was a favorite, but also visited Chinese high schools in Beijing, Xi'an, Taizhou and Shanghai.
While there, they learned more about the Chinese educational system and also got to experience school life for themselves, sitting in on some classes and even competing in a friendly basketball game during an afternoon break.
Overall, the Walter Payton students said that they were very "impressed" by the Chinese students they met, and that what they most treasured about their trip was the hospitality of the Chinese people and the friendships they made there.
"Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with open arms, and that was a really phenomenal thing to be a part of," student Mackenzie Trumbull told Xinhua, adding that one of the highlights of the trip was presenting the delegation's gift to President Hu.
Trumbull said she had been interested in China ever since her mother told her stories of her own time there in the 1980s, and that now she had fallen in love with the country and couldn't imagine studying anything else.
For Trumbull, who is also very involved with the school's Model United Nations Club and aspires to study international relations in college, actually getting the opportunity to meet Chinese people is the best way to further the relationship between China and the United States, she believed.
"I think the idea of putting a name and a face to this massive country is really important in developing these really strong friendships with people in China," she said, commenting on how her view of China has changed since her trip this summer.
Before the trip, many of the American students had already taken Chinese language and culture classes at Walter Payton, and were excited to test their Mandarin with the new Chinese friends they met in each city.
Though they said they were grateful they had this opportunity to practice, the Americans admitted they were very relieved the Chinese students spoke English so well, as they themselves sometimes had problems correctly pronouncing the Chinese tones.
For many, however, this is yet another incentive to return to China -- to show their new friends they have not only broadened their knowledge of the country, but also improved their language skills.