While Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Lincoln High School three years ago has faded from the general news cycles, the visit still plays a daily part of life at the school, not only in class discussions but with visitors as well. More than a few Chinese tourists swing by the school to take selfies in the same chair Jinping sat during his visit – seat number 15 in the auditorium.
“His trip here was a big deal,” Principal Patrick Erwin said.
Erwin got glimpses that the Chinese president’s visit was going to be a big deal during the months of planning and security checks leading up to the visit followed by the flood of journalists seeking access while Jinping was in town. Then came the stroll Erwin had with the president from his office to the auditorium where he chatted with Jinping about the students coming from mostly disadvantaged families with few opportunities to travel. Jinping then went off script by adding a zero to his initial offer to host students from the school to visit China the following year. What had started as an offer of just 10 students became an offer for 100 students.
Lincoln students have returned to China every year since. Another handful of students will be traveling to Chengdu in central China next week to visit an orphanage that houses children left parentless by a massive earthquake that shook the region 10 years ago.
“I had no idea we would have such a strong connection with China and the Chinese schools,” Erwin said. “There are some things that just sort of blossomed.”
Sophomore Lisi Brooks is one student going to China this year thanks to funding by the U.S.-China Youth Exchange program, which covers the roughly $4,000 per student cost. Her sister, Lincoln Associated Student Body President Allie Brooks, went in 2016. The sisters travel frequently with their parents around the world, including vacations to Spain, France, Sweden, Russia and Italy, so she considers herself lucky to be so well traveled.
“Some of the students going to China haven’t even ever been on a plane,” she said, noting that she was a bit jealous when her sister went two years ago and returned with travel stories about walking on the Great Wall and seeing thousand-year-old sites. Her sister would often even retell the story of eating noodles that were so spicy that everyone’s lips went numb.
“These little experiences turn into inspirations,” she said.
Senior Chessie Briggs went in 2016 and has seen the lasting changes the school’s ties to China haave brought to the halls and classrooms.
“I think the trips have changed the school a lot,” she said.
Classroom discussions routinely include talks about China, the experiences by many of the students and the differences between the cultures, particularly how hard Chinese students take their school work.
“They really put the time in,” she said, noting however that students there seem no more or less happy than her classmates because of those long hours studying. “They see happy one way, and we see happy another. It’s all happiness. It’s just different.”
The trans-Pacific trips and the rise of Chinese exchange students to Lincoln have strengthened ties between Tacoma and China that have arguably never been stronger and more beneficial to the region.
Chinese developers, for example, have fronted about $300 million investment money in some of downtown Tacoma’s largest projects, including a 22-story, four-star hotel and a mixed-use project next to the Tacoma Convention Center, according to the city’s Community and Economic Development Department.