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Urbanna woman finds hospitality and parallels in China

by Kelly Proctor

Dressed in Chinese attire, Kelly Proctor had this photo taken during her 14 months of studying the language and culture of Communist China. Proctor is the daughter of Martha Heric and Joe Heyman of Urbanna.
“And now, let’s hear from a foreigner . . . how about you, Kelly?”

I gulped and white-knuckled the microphone. It had been a mistake to give my name to this perky TV personality. I was on the Chinese-language show “Duihua (Dialogue),” and the topic was, “How to improve China’s People’s University (my school, and a Communist Party mainstay).”

“Well,” I began, then emitting a series of squeaking noises loosely definable as language. I was beginning to realize that though speaking intelligible Chinese with my host family was hard, sounding coherent in front of 100 people on taped TV was a heck of a whole lot harder.

Last March, this Beijing TV show appearance was a result of the fact I was a tall-ish, red-haired, freckly American living in China. During my 14 months there, this was my ticket to getting interviews with scholars, lots of free stuff (like dinners and language lessons), and an endless stream of “hellos,” stares and smiles.

It was fascinating spending time in a country whose news is punted around daily on TV and in newspapers worldwide. Through my own main observations I saw that despite all the worrying about increasing Chinese power, there’s no need to worry about a Red takeover any time soon.

You see, China is a country doing the splits. Its left foot is stuck in the propagandic recesses of early 1940s and 1950s Communist history. Back then, people practically worshiped heroes with names like “Iron Man Wang,” a type of Chinese superhero who discovered the largest oil field in China. Photos show him leaping into a pit to mix cement with his own body in order to plug a ruptured well, news reports say.

China’s other big toe is stretched way forward in a modernity and progress that has surpassed even us in some respects. In Beijing, my 11-year-old Chinese host brother was doing math I learned in late high school. I’ve seen street sweepers with sweeter cell phones than your average St. Clare Walker Middle School pre-teen.

With contradictions like these, the country is struggling to get its older, backward half up to speed to its modern one. Add to the mix rampant government corruption, a lack of human rights and no free media to patrol any of these problems, and China’s internal problems ensure it is unlikely to be a threat any time soon. (Now, the outsourcing of American widget factories to southern China is a different story.)

If you yourself ever get to China, you will be struck by how genuinely kind many people are and how they want to understand and welcome Americans. Chinese people are fantastic hosts; if you go to a Chinese home, they assign you a name like “Sister” or “Auntie” and make you a member of the family right away (I’m known as “Sister Kelly” to the Zhangs, the Chens and the Wus in Beijing.) They also will stuff you full of roasted duck and hand-pulled noodles until you want to crawl under the table.

I tried to bring a little bit of Urbanna to Beijing. I bought a handful of red-painted crab magnets for gifts (after dutifully scratching off the “Made in China” stickers). I did my best to explain my hometown to them. “It’s got only 600 people, and an Oyster Festival every November.” This was a source of much consternation for them. In China, small towns and rural areas are places people want to scratch their way out of. An average “small” city of just a couple million people probably has a smoke-belching coal-fired power plant nearby. That’s why people were dumbfounded when I told them I was from a small town—and then showed them the beautiful pictures on

Now I’m back from Beijing and preparing for the Oyster Festival; it reminds me of the colorful Chinese Dragon Boat Festival. I’m noticing a lot of things in China and the U.S. with parallels like that—sort of makes you think the world isn’t that big, after all.

posted 11.06.2008

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