By Assunta Ng
Visiting the ambassador in Beijing
“Did you see Gary?” my friends immediately asked when they learned I had just returned from Beijing, referring to U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke.
Everyone is curious how the native son is doing in China these days. Ambassador Locke is a super, super star in China. His popularity soared when a Chinese man took a photo of his backpack at the Starbucks inside SeaTac International Airport. Locke and his family were on their way to China for Locke’s new job. The Chinese media contrasted Locke’s modest image to the lavishness and elaborate displays of servants and guards around Chinese officials. Locke’s humble manner of doing things for himself — carrying his own backpack — buying his own coffee, created an instant sensation in China.
Seeing Locke and his wife, Mona, were actually the highlight of my 12-day trip with my husband to Hong Kong and China.
Knowing that our University of Washington alum Robert Wang is the deputy ambassador made our visit even more exciting. Getting to tour the U.S. embassy (though only a small section) made our experience worthwhile.
The U.S. embassy a tourist attraction?
While traveling overseas, you probably start looking for the embassy only when you’ve experienced bad luck, like losing your passport or encountering problems seemingly unresolvable in a foreign country.
It never occurred to me that the U.S. embassy has tourist appeal.
Embassies all over the world are known as spy centers or, simply, places for getting visas. When Gary Locke was appointed ambassador last March, my attitude toward this government agency suddenly shifted. Heck, it’s the first time in U.S. history that we have a Chinese American ambassador.
It’s true. Before, I didn’t care about going to any American embassy. But now, I have a desire to learn about this entity that has often been misunderstood.
If not now, when?
No ifs and buts this time, I just hopped on the plane. It’s convenient to fly to Beijing since we have direct flights from Seattle through Delta and Hainan Airlines.
I discovered that the U.S. embassy has some of the best brains from America and China. After all, can we afford to hire dumb guys to gather intelligence?
It combines many of the government and public resources all in one place, so that it can foster collaboration and exchange and build bridges between the two countries. It houses more than 1,000 staff members (the embassy hires many local Chinese.). They are working on agriculture, arts, culture, education, trade, tax, technology, management, and all kinds of issues, which affect U.S.–Sino relations.
It is perhaps the most American place outside of America. The security check at the entrance has photos of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It’s unique to have a picture of a Black man displayed so prominently. I haven’t seen any European or Asian country elect a Black leader. At this point, China would not have a female secretary of state. Inside the embassy, the number one and number two persons are Chinese Americans. Their personal secretaries are also Chinese Americans. Robert Wang, an immigrant from the Philippines, is in charge of the internal operations, and Locke, the external.
The first rule for visitors at the embassy is that no pictures are allowed during the tour. That’s like stabbing a journalist in the heart.
How I would love to show you the beautiful courtyard of the embassy, with its gigantic tulip artwork. The architecture inside includes a glass structure. (This area is known as the classified building, where Locke’s office is.) Even spouses are not permitted to walk in without security clearance.
The tour guide, a cultural specialist who conducted a private tour for us on Nov. 7, showed us all the famous artwork by Americans, Chinese Americans, and Chinese artists on the first floor of the building we entered. One of those is Maya Lin’s aerial view of the Yangtze River, which many people had interpreted as a dragon.
Also in the same building, the Lockes greeted us in a public room two days prior to our tour. In that room, we got a few pictures, thanks to the help of Locke’s staff.
Why did I keep it quiet?
I never believed that we could meet with Locke, although the appointment with him was confirmed. For some reason, I had uncertainties. What if something happened (like a U.S.–Sino crisis) that would prevent him from meeting us?
Our visit was scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 5. The embassy is closed on Saturdays. When we were in Hong Kong on Nov. 4, I learned that Gary would be in his native village, Taishan, on Friday. Would he make it back to Beijing on time?
The Lockes’ schedule is packed with both official and family duties. Mona is pretty much like the first lady of Washington state again. She hosts many public receptions at the ambassador’s residence for U.S. delegates and groups. The first floor of their residence is for that purpose. The second floor is their private area. This is similar to the Lockes’ living situation when he was our governor, residing at the governor’s mansion from 1997 to 2004.
My doubts proved to be unfounded. He did make it back to Beijing, along with his sister Rita Yoshihara, to see us.
I wasn’t planning to work during my vacation. But the ambassador’s secretary e-mailed me and wrote, “Ambassador and Mrs. Locke asked … whether you would be interested in doing a story about them settling in Beijing?”
Wow, how could I refuse such an offer! (end)
Part two next week: talking to Ambassador Locke!