PORTLAND — During the three years I taught English and communication in China, my university students often questioned me about the practice of democracy in the United States.

On Thursday nights on our campus in Nanchang, students would gather for the weekly “English corner.” They were eager to test their struggles to learn this difficult language.

Everyone was crazy to learn English, because it was the path to a good job, maybe even a job in Shanghai or Beijing.

English, especially American English, was the road to the middle class. Being fluent in English also promised advancement in social status.

During the interminably long month of November 2000, as I waited for the outcome of the U.S. national election, participation in the English corners increased dramatically.

On Thursday evenings for three hours I was encircled by a sea of students, citizens and children.

The well-rehearsed “Do you like China?” or “How do you like Chinese food?” questions from September and October developed in November into “What is happening in your country?” and “What kind of a democracy isn’t able to elect a president?”

I explained that we were witnessing democracy at work in all its agonizing slowness.

More than several of my interrogators sneered at my explanation. “Then your democracy doesn’t work very well, does it?” There was general laughter.

I responded with questions for them. “Have you heard of any rioting in the United States?” “Have you heard any reports of looting?” “How many U.S. citizens have been killed?”

After a long silence I asked, “If this were to happen in China, what would be going on?” There was general laughter and buzzing in Chinese.

One young man shouted, “There would be blood flowing in the streets.”

Briefly, I tied up the loose ends of our talk. Yes, I said, democracy is elusive and imperfect.

Many voices need to be listened to and considered. All views need to be aired. There is constant disagreement. It’s messy and often confusing. And it’s slow.

I told them that what we were witnessing in the United States was the rule of law slowly working its way toward resolution. I contrasted the rule of law with the rule of men, how a few individuals deliberate behind closed doors and have the power to efficiently put their decisions into action.

Two years later, at a prominent university in Shanghai, my English majors were elated over their first opportunity to vote, an experiment in democracy.

On election day classes were canceled. The student body packed the auditorium to hear the district’s three candidates for the People’s Congress make their speeches.

There was a pause in the proceedings as the leaders of each class of approximately 50 students were called into a separate meeting.

The leaders returned with instructions for the students to vote for one candidate, the one chosen by the party.

Putting on their carefully cultivated dispassionate faces, the students complied.

Later, in private, some cried as they described their how their anticipation had turned bitter.

One group of students in my writing class chose to write about the “election” for a team writing assignment.

To assure the authors’ anonymity, a volunteer student from outside the class read the essay to the class.

The writing came from their hearts. It was direct and passionate.

When the reader finished, every one of the 50 students turned to look at me sitting in the back of the classroom.

I told them that one day they would have their own Chinese democracy, but that they would never have it if they caved in to cynicism.

They needed to stay engaged and to contribute to the well-being of China.

To protect the students’ identity, I destroyed my copy of this remarkable essay.

I’ve been thinking of my Chinese students as we in Maine decide how we are going to vote on the first Tuesday this November.

I will vote for the candidate who is best qualified to be Maine’s governor, who has the most relevant experience to govern in a global economy, who has a carefully formulated and pragmatic vision for the state

I will vote for a person of admirable character, and a person who is enthusiastically committed to promoting the culture and well-being of Maine.

No political party will tell me how to vote. No poll will tempt me to vote for a candidate who has the best chance of defeating the candidate I value the least. I will decide independently where to put my X.

I will never disappoint my Chinese friends.

 

– Special to The Press Herald