My 1992 presidential-election ballot came into my hands as did most of my mail in China: rumpled and damp, with shoe marks across the envelope. I did not find this appearance surprising. After teaching English for more than a year at Jiangxi Normal University, in Nanchang, China, I had learned that such was life. The campus post office's sorting process was one of convenience, not sanitation. Because there was no place other than the floor to empty stuffed mail bags, shoe marks often adorned the envelopes as workers tromped about, hastily sorting through the campus mail piles and cramming envelopes into their appropriate boxes. On a good day, one's mail might carry only a sneaker's indentation, not the wetness from the floors.
My ballot envelope was not so fortunate.
Four months earlier, I had made sure that my voting duty as an American could be performed. I had filled out the proper absentee-voter registration forms, mailed these well in advance of deadlines, and sent a follow-up letter in case my materials were lost. My father, back in the States, even checked at the county courthouse to make sure I was registered to vote.
Now, as I retrieved this filthy, damp absentee ballot envelope, I eagerly awaited a reward for all my troubles - something like the descent of the American bald eagle, showering all with the Spirit of 1776 while John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" accompanied in a dazzling display of Fourth of July fireworks.
Instead, I received a barrage of Chinese University students excitedly shoving their way past me in an attempt to reach their dormitory mailboxes. I watched as a few well-voiced spits found their way to the mail room's floor. Amid the scramble, several letters fluttered downward and adhered to the sticky wet spots, much as my own envelope must have done.
I sighed, deposited my soiled mail in a book bag, and crossed the campus to my first English class of the day.
Twenty-three adults, layered in sweaters because of the classroom's fall chill, were quietly waiting for me. They were countryside English teachers, studying in a one-year course to improve their English language skills so that they might better teach their own students.
As teachers in their remote villages, they made so little money (an average of $27 a month) that the cost of a bus or train ticket home was considered an extravagance. Most stayed on campus until late January when the one-month Chinese New Year holiday finally allowed them to be reunited with spouses, parents, children, and friends. They were committed students, hard-working and cheerful, yet some days were difficult for them.
After weeks of living in crowded, dank dormitory rooms, homesickness often set in. Looking at their tired faces that morning, and remembering my own disappointing mail-room encounter, I felt something was needed to rekindle our language-study enthusiasm.
WITH spontaneous conviction, I chose to explain the American voting process. The lesson began well. I outlined voting criteria on the blackboard. I described voting procedures. I defined pertinent election-year vocabulary. And when I proudly opened the envelope I had just received, the students eagerly gathered around to better view what they had never before seen - an authentic US presidential election ballot.
"Miss Wieck," the young Ms. Wei caught my attention. "You choose the president from these names?" She pointed to the first column of candidates on the ballot.
"Yes," I replied. "And the vice president, too. They come as a pair."
Ms. Wei paused, intently studying the names.
"Now here are two women running for president and vice president," I volunteered, pointing to the New Alliance Party candidates.
Ms. Wei looked startled. "You mean there are women who run for president?" She seemed puzzled. "But I have heard only about men on Voice of America radio broadcasts."
"Yes, well," I began, "that's because those male candidates are more popular and...."
"They are the best leaders," Mr. Wu interrupted. "Only men can lead a country. Women can't do this; they are not enough strong."
"Strong enough," Ms. Wei corrected, "and I disagree with you. Women are stronger in the mind than men."
"In my opinion," piped up a Wu follower, "women are too kindly, too much like a child to be an important leader. They must help to raise our country's youth."
"And cook!" another male voice added.
The next thing I knew, the entire room had erupted into Chinese. Voices raised. Arms gesticulated. Opinions flared. This was not the lesson I had envisioned.
Later that evening in the privacy of my small apartment, I cast my presidential election ballot.
There were no eagles descending, no Sousa marches playing, no fireworks bursting, and no US flags flying. There was only the gentle swishing of a worker's broom dusting the campus sidewalks outside my window. That, and a quiet moment of reflection as I sealed my vote in an airmail envelope returning to the country I called home.