Thursday, June 28, 2007

Return of the King

Two days after the Chairman’s arrival, we take a two-hour drive to Victor’s village. Niu Yun arranges for us to visit the orphanage, but having done so, informs Andrea and Dave that the mayor of the town would like to greet Victor and his family when they arrive. The city would like welcome him, then the city fathers (and yes, they’re all men) would like to have lunch with the family. “It’s a village,” I think. “This must be a pretty big deal to a small village.”

Let me disavow you of any misconceptions. When Victor was adopted, his hometown had a mere 80,000 people living in it. Today over 400,000 individuals live there (and yes, you read that correctly). And yet it has the feel of a village. Only three years ago, the only road out to it was a two-lane coal road, not the highway we use to get there. Most of the buildings are low, and there are many of the traditional houses with enclosed courtyards. The streets are uneven and not often paved. And yet it will be as big as Cleveland in a few years. Wow.

When we arrive, a car awaits us at the off-ramp of the highway. It guides us into a town that is growing and prospering, but it is not wealthy. It seems to me that the wealthiest part of town is city hall, though many factories and high rises appear in the works. We are escorted to city hall, where fifteen people, including the mayor, deputy mayors, assorted associates, the dean and administrator of the orphanage, a television reporter and a newspaper reporter flock to us. This flocking phenomenon follows Victor everywhere this day. People touch him, hug him, lift him, pull him, and kiss him. “This is, like, too much!” declares Andrea amazedly at one point. It’s a big city, but it acts like a small town.

As this is Victor’s story, I shall herein keep my remarks to my own very small experience in it.

During lunch, we dine not only with the city officials, but also with the General Secretary of the District. Each official makes a toast to us with “fenjiu”, a locally produced liquor. Let me say that, as the one sitting closest to these officials and of drinking age, I am privy to many side toasts, on topics as diverse as the use of chopsticks to the ancestry of my beloved. I am informed that I like fenjiu more than the Russians or the Japanese, both of whom are big drinkers. We toast to that, too. I believe I engage in nine or ten toasts. Nine is the luckiest number in China; I probably have ten.

Dave makes an excellent toast when presenting each of the officials with a small token of our trip. Then I do something stupid: I, too, make a toast. I will write it here in English, though I attempted parts of it in Chinese:

“In college, my friends and I had a toast we made at every gathering. ‘To the continued wealth of the Republic.’ In thanks for the affection you have shown us, I say to you today, To the Continued Wealth of the People’s Republic!”

Or something like that. After ten toasts, everything everyone says is clever, right?

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