The U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, went home Friday. He didn't return to Seattle, his old stomping ground, but to his ancestral village in southern China. It was his third trip back, though his first since being appointed ambassador.
At first, Chinese Internet users had criticized him as a "fake foreign devil who can't speak Chinese." But now the tide has turned.
Locke kicked off his return to his ancestral home with a video posted on China's version of Twitter. It's a nod to his status as an Internet sensation. At a round-table discussion with local reporters in Guangzhou, in China's southern Guangdong province, he admitted that he has been taken aback by his runaway popularity.
"It was completely unexpected, and not by design," Locke told the journalists. "I'm somewhat overwhelmed by the microblogging that takes place in China, and the smartphones and all the people that want to take photos of myself and my family."
That much was clear straight away. Press conference over, the reporters elbowed each other out of the way to have their pictures taken with Locke.
But when a television reporter asked him to say something to the local audience in Cantonese, he refused, saying, "I don't want to embarrass myself, or my Chinese ancestry. Let me just say I'm so proud to be here as United States ambassador to China."
Later on, he told students at an international school to study harder, saying he regrets his inability to speak Chinese.
Advantages Of Being Ordinary
But this trip to Guangdong province is about more than just business. One stop was a snack shop serving sesame paste, his favorite dessert. This, too, became a photo op, as the owner shyly sidled up asking for a photo. She was trembling with pride at the celebrity slurping her sesame soup.
"Even though he's an official, he's an ordinary person," said owner He Zhilian. "He's very down-to-earth. So I'm extremely honored that he's come to my shop."
Locke has shot to fame not for his meetings with top Chinese officials but for his ordinariness. He carries his own backpack, travels in economy class and buys coffee with discount vouchers.
Such low-key behavior highlights the luxurious lifestyles of some Chinese officials, so much so that one party-controlled newspaper published an editorial on its website saying Locke's posting was a neocolonialist plot "to strengthen pro-U.S. forces in China." He shrugged this off.
"There's no way this was a U.S. government neocolonialist plot," Locke said.
But he admitted that being in the spotlight does have its advantages.
"If anything, the added attention, greater visibility I've been able to generate, if that can open doors, and bridge and expose more Chinese to American values, the American way of life, then that's great," he said.
His modest, backpack-toting lifestyle is sometimes in contrast to his official duties. His schedule recently included a meeting with local Communist Party officials at a luxurious hotel in Taishan, Guangdong province.
With its marble-floored corridors with gold-plated columns and domed ceilings decorated with frescoes of chubby-cheeked cherubim, the hotel is Guangdong's version of Versailles.
His next stop was at Shuibu kindergarten, where he was mobbed by crowds, hands outstretched, desperate to touch this rock star ambassador. Inside the kindergarten, children wearing heavy face paint danced with pompoms to the soccer anthem "Ole Ole Ole." Outside the gates, crowds gathered, waiting to see the hometown boy made good.
"I've been following him on the Internet," said Zhao Jie, as she shuffled from foot to foot trying to get a glimpse of the ambassador. "I think for an ethnically Chinese person to become an American ambassador makes us all very proud."
Taking Care Of Family Business
Driving past fields of bright green crops, the sounds of welcoming drummers and lion dances greeted Locke at his ancestral village, Jilong. The head of his family, sixth-great-uncle Mr. Luo, was waiting for him at the village entrance, along with all the other villagers and dozens of other members of the extended Locke family.
It's Locke's first trip back since his father, Jimmy Locke, died in January. And he had family business to attend to in the ancestral home, a modest brick building almost 100 years old, built in the traditional style. Family photos line both walls of the house, while handmade woven baskets hang from the low eaves.
Locke climbed a ladder to place a photo of his father in the family shrine, a burgundy wood alcove at the heart of the house, topped with elaborate woodcarvings painted gold. Then he carefully poured out wine for the spirits, and sprinkled it on the ground.
Amid fireworks, he visited the family graves, with 40-odd members of his extended family. They bowed to the graves, burned incense and gave offerings of two suckling pigs.
"I think because my dad passed away ... it's different this time," said Locke's sister, Rita Yoshihara, who has joined him on this pilgrimage, their first in five years. "It felt good to have closure, to come and pay respects. It's been a little bit emotional, but it's been good."
After visiting the graves, Locke sat alongside his 85-year-old great-uncle, asking him questions about their shared history. The personal nature of this visit underlined Locke's roots.
But the personal is also political. In this social media age, Locke's ethnicity means he has a chance to make an impact like few ambassadors to China ever have before.