Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The 2008 Election: a View from Chengdu, China

At 11 am when I left for the “Election Watch Event” at the Crowne Plaza Chengdu Hotel I had already been watching the election returns on-line for some three hours. In order to make the early returns a little more lively, I had pitted the predictions of CNN (on Foxfire) against those of the New York Times (on Internet Explorer). Watching the very early returns from Indiana on either browser heightened my own sense of suspense for the outcome of the election. The fact that the map of the election returns, now, at 4:30 am EST, still present Indiana as an inconclusive race sends shivers down my spine. This race could have been so very close.

Fortunately, the outcome was otherwise. When I arrived at the Crown Plaza Chengdu Hotel, I endured the delay of the usual security checks – minus removal of my shoes. Once inside, I was ushered to the reservation desk, where I gave my name and took a quick survey of the materials on the table. I saw only McCain-Palin buttons – my heart crept towards my throat, but I took a deep breath and decided that this was a hopeful (rather than an ominous sign). Hopefully, the crowd inside would be sporting the other buttons!

Most of the Chinese people I have met are Obama supporters. Among my students, a straw poll indicated 100% support for Obama! I was surprised and pleased.

The other good sign was the offering of real coffee! China is a nation of tea drinkers. I poured a cup … then a second one. I grew confident that the day was going to go my way.

I met a friend from the Consulate. He was talking with an older woman and a younger man. She was sporting one of those other buttons – her right of course. Their conversation finished, and my friend, apologetically, explained his friends away. It took great pains to be neutral!

The electoral vote edged upwards. There was a momentary pause in the conversation.

The Fulbright Liaison from the Consulate introduced me to the Consul General, Mr. James Boughner. We chatted for a bit – he seemed eager to retell the details of his interviews with reporters earlier in the day. He explained his perception that this was a unique moment in history and that the event deserved more than a tea party at the Consulate Building. Most of the invited guests were Chinese who in some way interacted with Americans in official capacities. An election in the U.S. is a complicated process – to say the least – and it was his belief that the experience should be shared as widely as possible.

As he spoke, the electoral vote jumped again. Then, a banner appeared across the lower half of the screen. CNN had called the election for Obama. There was a gasp. It was audible … The gasp was followed by the silence of disbelief and tears of relief. Then, the tension broke and the digital cameras took over. I had a small American flag in my top pocket; a colleague had brought an Obama T-shirt with him when he came to Chengdu in August (Gary plans ahead). A Consulate Mom had bought Obama hats and cheer leaders pom-poms in blue and white for her three children. It was a photo-op moment that made up for all of the pictures I have taken of Chinese friends! Look for our photos on the web!

We breathed a collective sigh of relief; thanked McCain for his willingness to concede early and for the sincerity of his remarks. We stood with Obama, as we imagined his own personal response to the victory, and waited …and waited … for his first remarks as President-Elect. After a very long two years, we were willing to wait just a little longer. We sat and listened in a mixture of disbelief and relief. We did it! Tomorrow, as the Leader said, our work begins again.

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