These partnerships foster cultural exchanges and offer travel opportunities that can be life-changing for citizens of Chattanooga and our sister citizens around the world. From hosting exchange students to welcoming government officials, sister city volunteers provide a unique bridge between communities that goes beyond government processes and formalities.
For example, Claypool recalls a time several years ago when a delegation of Chinese politicians and city workers visited Chattanooga. She says, “Typically, these groups go to City Hall, they go to the Chamber of Commerce, and sometimes they go to a business here and get a tour. I told the fellow that was organizing the visit that we need to get them in our homes.” Though their itinerary was already well-booked, they were able to gather in Claypool’s home for afternoon tea and cookies.
This opportunity to socialize on a more personal level, Claypool says, made all the difference. “I had a friend come and play the piano. He played American songs, and they loved it. They took pictures of everything on my first floor – including an antique Chinese cabinet I have in my living room,” she laughs. “When I went to China the following year for a conference with sister cities and friendship cities, I had hardly made it through the lobby when four of the eight people from the delegation came up to me and said, ‘Oh I remember you, Karen. I was at your house!’ They showed me photos they had taken with my piano, a piece of Chinese art, and even my parents’ wedding photo.” One of the men invited the group to his home in return, and Claypool says, “He told me afterwards, ‘If I come back to Chattanooga, I want to bring my wife and stay at your house, and you can come and stay at my house anytime.’ So Mr. Zhi, his family, and I have a special friendship that happened because we have been to each other’s homes.”
Beyond fostering a deeper understanding between government officials and city workers, these sister city relationships open up incredible opportunities for students and others who wish to travel. While anyone can book a trip to a new country and enjoy the typical sights, sister city partnerships make international travel feel more like visiting a friend. The result, according to Claypool, is a much more rewarding travel experience.
“I’ve had incredible experiences that I wouldn’t have had in any other way where I got to meet people and stay in their homes. When most people travel, they stay in hotels, they meet the hotel staff, they meet the wait staff in restaurants, but rarely do they get to know how people live. Rarely do they get to form friendships. And that’s what our relationships do,” Claypool explains. “If people visit six countries in two weeks, they don’t get to know six countries.
I think it’s important that people develop relationships and learn the culture and the way of life. People who live there know things to do and to show you. Sometimes it’s a matter of someone saying ‘have this green tea ice cream!’ that you might not have thought to try on your own.”
How to Get Involved
If you enjoy travel, want to learn more about different cultures, or simply enjoy getting to know new people and participating in fun activities, SCA of Chattanooga offers a wealth of opportunities. Anybody is invited to join the Sister City Association and participate in monthly gatherings, including events with visiting delegations from sister cities.
“We’ll often meet for lunch or for dinner and have a speaker. And when we have delegations visit, we look for host families and people to do things with us,” Claypool explains. “My contention is we learn to like people when we do fun things together, not just when we sit in meetings.” In addition to planning trips to sister cities, the group frequently offers potluck dinners and other fun events designed to make it easier to mingle with locals and visitors alike.
The friendships forged through these programs transcend government relations, as they allow individuals from different places and with different perspectives to see each other as real people and get to know each other on a deeper level. “Oh, to see the people from Hamm and our other sister cities who are thrilled when an American delegation comes over or who are thrilled to come here and to watch these friendships grow … it’s the best thing I can do for world peace. That sounds a little hokey, but it’s true,” she shares. “So many people say it’s America first, but when we take that attitude, we don’t work to develop programs that are good for the whole world. We’re all in this together, not just as a country but as fellow citizens of the planet.”