The most memorable experience during Hsiao-Mei Wiedmeyer's recent trip to Laoshan — Columbia's Chinese sister city — was one particular walk in a park.
In China, "you see the whole family out on the weekend — playing sports, singing opera or karaoke," Wiedmeyer said, laughing. "Mayor (Darwin) Hindman played games with random children. We don't have that here in Columbia, and I wish they (Columbians) could go there and just have conversations and interact in the park and in the street."
Hindman and Wiedmeyer, a retired diabetes researcher and the president of Columbia Friends of China, were part of a delegation of 10 Columbians that trekked to the coastal city and economic hub of Laoshan in May.
The courtship between the two cities started late last year when MU's Asian Affairs Center brought 20 officials from the Shandong province of China to Columbia.
It was on this trip that Columbia and Laoshan officially partnered through Sister Cities International, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that promotes international relationships at the municipal level.
Columbia has five sister cities: three in eastern Asia and two in Eastern Europe. Its active relationships are with Laoshan, China; Kutaisi, Georgia; and Hakusan City, Japan. It once had relations with Suncheon City, South Korea and Sibiu, Romania.
In 1996, Columbia approved a resolution that passed the responsibility of maintaining sister city relationships to private organizations. City officials said because of limited resources and a tightened budget, the city could not run a unified sister cities organization but instead would act as the official liaison between Sister Cities International and the foreign city governments.
The relative autonomy afforded to these independent organizations is beneficial because it instills a sense of duty in Columbia's citizens — the community must be involved if it wants its sister city relationships to be maintained.
Mayor Darwin Hindman said the city should be supporting existing relationships.
"I think that's an important goal, to have the citizens benefit from these sister cities' relationships," Hindman said. "And by having an active group behind these relationships, it makes it something that the rest of the community can get more involved in."
And Columbians are indeed strengthening these bonds. The nonprofit group A Call To Serve, which was founded in Columbia by Patricia Blair in 1992, forged a partnership with Kutaisi, Georgia, in 1997. For the past five years, ACTS has led campaigns to attack the prevalence of goiter — a swelling of the thyroid gland, especially in children.
The organization has been raising money and collecting iodized salt, a preventative measure for goiter. With the Soviet Union's collapse and as a byproduct of the independence process for the former satellite countries, Georgia underwent economic depression and could not afford to import many resources or consumer goods that had previously been supplied by the Soviets. Because the country doesn't have enough salt mines or flats, Georgians started developing goiter due to the lack of iodine.
"Mayor Hindman had been over to Georgia, and he was talking about the condition of children over there. It was a sad situation especially as it's pretty preventable," said Columbia resident Garry Taylor. "I just happened to be listening to him on the radio and thought something could be done to bring our community together and help our sister city. With the work of ACTS and Dr. Trish Blair and through the efforts of the whole community, we got that accomplished."
Columbia has worked to grow the educational exchange. The program with Columbia's Japanese sister city, Hakusan City, was revamped in February 2005.
Hakusan City formed by merging Matto City with certain surrounding towns in the Ishikawa Prefecture. Columbia, which had a partnership with Matto City, kept its relationship with the expanded city and a delegation from Hakusan City came to Columbia for a cultural exchange in 2005. This summer, 15 middle school and high school students traveled to Japan for two weeks.
"The main reason is to open up the world outside of a textbook format for students," said Jean Selby, assistant principal at Oakland Junior High School. "It opens the gate for more communication, and you can really experience the cultures. Hearing the languages — they could never get that in the classroom."
Columbia Friends of China, the group that Wiedmeyer leads, formed in November and obtained its nonprofit status earlier this year. One of its top goals is to work within Columbia Public Schools.
"I got an e-mail from an American family who moved to Columbia from Iowa. The girl was a sophomore who had taken introductory Chinese in Iowa, and when she came here, she was afraid she wouldn't be able to continue," Wiedmeyer said. "We were able to find her an independent tutor, but she isn't getting school credit for it."
Columbia Friends of China has established an education committee and hopes to develop a Chinese language curriculum in high schools. Additionally, the group is working to start student exchange programs between Columbia and Laoshan.
Though there are educational, medical and business research projects in the works, the experience of being immersed in a new culture seems to resonate as the greatest benefit for Columbians.
Robert Ross, a Columbia city government spokesman, acts as a liaison between the city government and independent groups such as Columbia Friends of China. He said participants in the sister city programs get a lot out of it.
"This is a world community, and by having relationships like this we expand our cultural horizons," he said. "We also believe that citizens need to be involved."