One woman, one vote - on the other side of the world

If I were voting Tuesday in my small town in America, I would enjoy a peaceful visit to the polls. I'd leisurely walk uptown, passing tidy lawns, well-kept houses, and well- paved streets on my way to complete my civic duty. But here in southwestern China, I gear up for a more adventuresome journey. At last, my absentee presidential election ballot has arrived, and I must pick it up at the post office, located up the Yangtze River road from the college where I teach English.

The small rural 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 constantly careen by, their blaring horns scattering stray chickens and dogs. It has no sidewalks or walkways.

Today, fortunately, I exit the school and find safety in numbers. I slip in behind three coal sellers pulling their heavy wooden carts. We move tentatively, with oncoming traffic on one side and sewage ditches on the other.

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. We pass a mah-jongg parlor, set up in an abandoned farmhouse. The elderly patrons crowd around square tables, slurping tea and slamming down mah-jongg tiles. Through the open doorways of private homes, we see flames shoot out from under blackened woks. Our nostrils are stung by vapors from the hot chili peppers of Sichuan cuisine.

As my destination draws near, the coal haulers turn down an alleyway. I wait for several buses to fly past, then dash across the road to the post office.

The roof of the small, whitewashed mud building is layered with old clay tiles. Rustic wooden beams jut through the outside walls. To enter the building, I must make my way through a cluster of sidewalk vendors. Purveyors of stationery 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 merchants, I give in and buy envelopes and a tea egg.

Purchases in hand, I am finally able to enter the post office. Inside, a long counter topped with iron bars separates the customers from the two postal workers on duty. I watch them bustle about while serving customers ahead of me. They put stamps on 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 pickup. It seems haphazard and a bit chaotic, but I have never had a posted item from the United States lost or returned to the sender.

When it is my turn, I present my overseas letter collection slip to the attendant and wait. After 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 halfway around the world to reach me: my absentee ballot.

Mission accomplished, I visit the nearby Buddhist Pure Spring Temple. For more than 100 years, its courtyards have insulated worshipers from the turbulent world outside. From here, I look out over the sleepy, hazy Yangtze River and listen to the rhythmic chugging of passing boats. I hold my ballot and consider the power this one vote from China might have in an election too close to call. Is it worth another trip to the post office and the $25 express postage needed to guarantee an Election Day arrival?

Ask my hometown's County Clerk. By now he has my vote in hand and Tuesday will be placing my choice for US president in the ballot box.

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