BEIJING—There was nothing on TV about the election when I got up on Nov. 5, just about the time that the polls were closing in Indiana. I had been looking forward to following the results of an election from the other side of the world–as with the NBA’s West Coast games, the important part would play out not in the exhausted hours of late night but in the fat middle of the morning. Everyone back home could spend an agitated useless workday refreshing their browsers and chewing on tentative exit-polling rumors. I would wake up for the fourth quarter, when the action started.
That was assuming, however, that I was going to be able to tune into any action. Chinese television’s interest in the rest of the world waxes and wanes unpredictably. Two seasons ago, the Super Bowl showed up on two different channels; this past season, it was on none. As America waited for the election results, the only sign of the outside world I could find in Beijing was an international swim meet on the sports channel.
Being an expatriate is not the same thing as being a citizen of the world. Ernest Hemingway, the Midwesterner who’d tried exile in Paris and Spain, set out to write a novel about a man fighting on the Communist side in the Spanish Civil War. What he came up with was so red-blooded American that John McCain declared For Whom the Bell Tolls his favorite book, and told of how he’d meditated on its hero while the Communists held him as a prisoner of war.
I rarely feel more American, or prouder to be American, than I do in China. This is particularly true if I am in China and in the presence of Europeans. Pluck a European out of context–take away his grand old cities and his cured meats and his comprehensive social-services systems, and put him against a backdrop as foreign to him as it is to you–and what’s left more often than not is a watery-eyed person with silly glasses and mismatched clothes and a pathetic need for cigarettes, a dependence implanted in him through the marketing efforts of American business.
All of which is to say that, of the four or five election-watching parties available, most of my friends were going to the one at the French wine bar. But I wanted to know about Indiana before I could face it. If Indiana went blue when the polls closed, then the predictions were right and Obama was going to win. The last time I picked a state as an indicator was in 2000, when I told myself that if Florida went quickly for Gore, it was going to be an easy night. I hadn’t counted on Florida coming back down off the board, which I witnessed in a crowded ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., and which indirectly but definitely had led to my ending up by Election Day 2008 in Beijing instead of Silver Spring, Maryland.
Indiana! The Internet was not helping. Fivethirtyeight.com had disappeared behind the Great Firewall sometime in the previous week.
Nobody else had anything at first glance, and before I could start digging, it was time to take the baby to morning preschool. Or pre-preschool, whatever you call it. Another downside to having election might in the morning.
On my way out of the complex where the preschool is, I was passing the doorway of a medical center when I spotted a TV in the waiting room, tuned to CNN. I stopped in my tracks. Kentucky was going for McCain; Obama was behind in Virginia. It was early and tiny and meaningless, but it was impossible not to feel that lurching feeling, like when Florida changed color, or when the first returns on John Kerry started coming in below the exit polls. I swore and stared from the hallway till a receptionist came out from behind her station to have a look at the screen.
I checked the Web again when I got home. No Indiana, but things were moving for Obama. I stuffed my laptop in my backpack and headed for the wine bar.
It was almost a nice day; the Beijing smog, the cost of progress, filtered the otherwise bright autumn morning light, as if the whole city were set off behind tinted glass. Down at the corner market, they had put out a mountain of the year’s last cabbages, a tradition held over from the old days of rationed food. On Eastern Drum Tower Avenue, piles of bricks and dirt and paving blocks lined the way. The whole street had been modernized and beautified in advance of the Olympics, but now another round of improvement was underway. A spool of cable thicker than an arm was being unrolled alongside the digging.
When you’re a foreigner acting as a foreigner, the city of millions contracts to a small town. Like most parties, the election party was about one-third friends, one-third strangers, and one-third people I had met and probably chatted with but could not place. Some of them were drinking white wine; some were drinking coffee. The gabble of CNN played over the in-house speakers and it took a moment for me to find the television: a medium-large flat screen on the far wall. The video scarcely made it less confusing. In an information-thin environment, American cable news is not like drinking from a firehose; it’s like trying to eat peanuts with a spoon out of a bag containing one part peanuts to 20 parts peanut shells and horsehair scraps. Maybe I was tired. I looked longingly at someone’s espresso, calculated the effect of concentrated coffee on my agitation, and settled for an entire pot of jasmine tea.
The CNN picture froze as I was starting in on the tea. Bandwidth problem: the wine bar was getting CNN through its Internet connection, and somebody had logged into a video chat on a laptop.
The offender was found and disconnected, and the coverage came back. Obama had Ohio. Cheers all around. Virginia was closer than it was supposed to be. I got out my own computer to browse for a few more information-peanuts—which counties were late with the returns, what was happening in the Senate. Maps within maps. On the TV, Elizabeth Dole, with her poor stiff blurry face—and why has mutilation become part of the aging process for American women?—conceded defeat.
Obama was winning, to some extent. It was time to leave the party and go get the baby. He fell asleep in the cab, and I got back on the Internet at home. News began flooding in from the U.S., through instant messaging: Virginia was called for Obama. Fox was calling the race for Obama. I tried to find a video feed from Grant Park. CNN told me my version of Flash wasn’t up to date. The Obama Web site asked me for a donation. McCain was conceding. Chinese TV again: Now CCTV International, the English channel, did have it. "…Opportunities to those who all who have the industry and will to seize it…"
Then the station cut away so that the anchor could ask a guest expert, in her BBC English, what this election might mean for China. The MSNBC player was working on my computer: "… to dine at the White House … " CCTV International threw it to a live stand-up from Arizona. The reporter was inside the Biltmore ballroom—"the place," he said, "where John McCain’s election event was originally planned." The speech had been moved outside, but he was holding his post indoors, with McCain on giant screens behind him. "As I speak, you can hear this loud noise" from outside, he said.
What had CCTV International heard from voters? It was the economy.
"They’re voting for change, they’re not happy with how things are handled in the U.S.," the reporter said.
”This is not a surprise win for Barack Obama," he said.
On the MSNBC feed, John McCain’s supporters were booing his attempts at graciousness. CCTV International went to a segment of interviews with American troops. Then a station break: the battle against SARS … the Chinese scientist who was the father of hybrid rice … the ubiquitous Liu Xiang, the record-breaking hurdler. A commercial promoted the rock formations of the Yiming Stone Forest–more impressive than the more famous Stone Forest of Yunnan.
The MSNBC folks vamped their way through lunchtime, waiting for Obama. CCTV International moved on to a financial-news program. The anchor was somebody I had met at a party. Obama appeared and gave his speech. Every now and then the image of his face would freeze, but his voice kept flowing.
Three hours later, in traffic, I saw a vendor with an armload of the Beijing Legal Evening News. Obama was on the front page. How much?
Fifty mao, my cab driver said. The vendor doubled the price: 1 RMB. I shoved the bill out the window and got the paper. Ao Ba Ma, the headline said. Meiguo Shouwei Heiren Zongtong. America’s First Black President.