I have only voted once in America for a Presidential election. All my other ballots have been sent from overseas: Japan, Taiwan and China. No matter what political party we favor, I truly believe in the importance of voting. Every vote matters, not because it might sway an election but because of the unique feeling of having a say we each feel when choosing the leaders of our government.
If I were voting in my small town in America, I would enjoy a peaceful visit to the polls. I would leisurely walk uptown, passing by tidy lawns, well-kept houses and neatly paved streets on my way to complete my civic duty as an American. But here in southwestern China, I gear up for a more adventuresome voting sojourn. At last, my absentee presidential election ballot has arrived and I must pick it up at our area post office, located up the Yangtze river road from the college where I teach English.
Our small countryside post office is only a 10-minute walk from the school. The distance may be short, but getting there is tricky. Speeding buses and swaying construction trucks are constantly careening by. Their blaring horns scatter stray chickens and dogs, and warn bystanders of their approach. With no sidewalks or pedestrian walkways, the road becomes somewhat of a deathtrap.
Today, I am lucky. I exit the school’s gate and find safety in numbers. I slip in behind three coal sellers who are pulling their heavy loads on wooden carts. We four move tentatively. On one side, we keep diligent watch over oncoming traffic. On the other, we take care not to slip into open sewage ditches.
While carefully making our way forward, we pass typical scenes of roadside China. Family-run shops display a disarray of dusty products. At the entranceways, owners position themselves on stools and patiently wait for customers. To pass the time, they knit sweaters, pluck chickens, wash vegetables and read newspapers. Sometimes we pass a mahjong parlor, set up inside an abandoned farmhouse. The elderly crowd around the game’s square tables and slurp tea while noisily slamming down mahjong tiles. Through open doorways of private homes, we can see flames shoot out from under blackened woks. The smells of Sichuan cooking reach us, stinging our nostrils with the vapors of hot chili peppers.
As my destination draws near, the coal haulers turn down an alleyway and I am left to continue by myself. I wait for several buses to fly past, then make a dash across the road to the post office.
Our area post office is a small, white-washed mud building. The roof is layered in old clay tiles. Rustic wooden beams jut out through the outside walls. To enter the building, I must first make my way through a cluster of sidewalk sellers and their wares. Stationery, envelopes and cardboard boxes cater to the mailers. Fruit, hard-boiled tea eggs and sizzling beef kabobs entice the hungry. The arrival of a foreigner always causes a fuss. After being accosted by several sellers to buy their goods, I give in and purchase some envelopes and a tea egg.
With my purchases in hand, I am finally able to enter our local post office. Inside, a long counter with iron bars separates the customers from the two postal workers on duty. I watch them bustle about while serving the Chinese ahead of me. They adhere stamps to envelopes, fill out forms, check package slips and answer questions. They toss packages into heaps on the floor and drag out overstuffed mail bags for pick-up. It seems a haphazard system and a bit chaotic, but I have never once had a posted item from the U.S. lost or returned to the sender.
When it is my turn, I present my overseas’ letter collection slip to the postal attendant and wait. After some digging about in a wooden box, she returns with a soiled white envelope. She painstakingly checks the envelope’s numbers with those on the slip.
Finally, she hands over what has traveled half-way around the world to reach me: my presidential election ballot.
With my mission accomplished, I take time to visit the nearby Buddhist Pure Spring Temple. For over 100 years, its insulated courtyards have offered worshipers a place of solitude from the turbulent world outside. From here, I look out over the sleepy, hazy Yangtze River and meditate to the rhythmic chugging of passing boats. I hold my ballot in hand and consider the power this one vote from China has in any democratic election.
Is it worth another trip to the post office and the global express postage needed to guarantee an election day arrival?
Ask my hometown’s County Clerk. By now, he is placing my vote in the ballot box, already knowing I retraced my steps back up the Yangtze River road. This time, the journey was a little less adventuresome and a lot more meaningful.