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The State of the Union, Shared on Foreign Soil

Mr. Wu quickly led me through the old district of Nanchang, the capital city of China's Jiangxi Province. There was little time for me to enjoy the ambience of ancient China as we zigzagged down the city's narrow lanes, making our way to his home. My friend was in a hurry: President Clinton was waiting for us.

Wu was a retired professor who regularly visited me at Jiangxi Normal University where I taught English. He was introduced to me by an American teacher who was returning to the States and asked if I would take his place as Wu's English conversation partner. I agreed. Wu and I soon became good friends.

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On this occasion, he had invited me to his home, crouched in the center of Nanchang's old city district. The week before, Mr. Clinton had given his first State of the Union address. Wu had taped the speech from a Voice of America broadcast. When I told him that I had missed the address, he invited me to his home for a meal and to hear Clinton's speech.

Although I accepted his invitation, I really didn't care about the State of the Union address. I'd already performed my duty as an American by voting absentee. That was enough of the political scene for me, yet I wanted to please my friend. As we hurried along, I appeared enthusiastic but was anticipating a home-cooked Chinese meal more than the president's words.

We turned abruptly down a cobbled path and entered a small courtyard where Mr. Wu's home stood, pinned between others. We stopped for a moment to greet his neighbors, peering from their doorways to glimpse the foreigner. My friend then ushered me into his five-room house.

We crossed the creaking sitting room floor and padded onto the dirt floor of his home's largest room. A light bulb, dangling from the ceiling, revealed wooden cupboards on white-plastered walls. Worn baskets and rows of dried sausages hung from the ceiling's low rafters. Old newspapers hid in the corners of the room.

"My wife has gone to buy vegetables for our dinner," Wu said. "We can listen to President Clinton now. Come this way."

I followed my host into a small, dark side-room, so packed with household items that it was difficult to find a seat. I wondered why he had chosen to place his cassette player here, until I noticed the coal brazier on the floor. Unlike the other rooms in the house, this one was heated.

The tape crackled in the worn recorder until the room filled with thunderous applause from Capitol Hill. Eventually, the audience quieted and Clinton began.

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The topics were familiar, but for the first time, I was encountering them with a non-American. I watched Wu carefully. As the president touched upon the personal lives of Americans he had met, my friend listened intently. He nodded on several occasions. Paying bills, raising children, finding jobs - these were the same concerns found in his own country. I realized that, despite our different nationalities, we were united in our search for solutions to similar problems.

After our meal together, Wu walked me back home. We planned that next year we would listen to Clinton's speech again.

I have been in the States now for three years. I greatly miss Mr. Wu. And every year at this time, I listen to the State of the Union address and think of my friend who is also listening, half a world away.

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