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Chinese summer visitor

08/21/03 12:00AM By Ruth Page
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(Host) Vermont summers are short, but memories of the warm season are long. This month, VPR commentators reflect on the importance of the past - in our series "Summer Times." Here's commentator Ruth Page, recalling the summer visitor who had lots of questions about America - and helped weed the garden.

(Page) It was a hot summer in the late 1960's. Proc and I were busy running our weekly paper and printshop and working in our three big vegetable gardens. A call came from a UVM-connected organization that welcomes visiting VIPs to Vermont. Would we host a visiting Chinese, the head of Xinhua, China's largest newspaper?

"Gosh," I said, "we have only a small rural weekly paper - he's out of our league." Nevertheless, they wanted us (I suspect our home right on Lake Champlain, with a magnificent view of lake and mountains, had something to do with the choice.) We agreed.

Our Chinese guest spoke excellent English. He was natural, friendly, and perfectly unassuming. We showed him around, and his foremost request had nothing to do with newspapers: "May I help weed that garden with all the beans and strawberries in it?"

Could he ever! We were thrilled. So whenever he got a chance he put on baggy pants and a tunic, and worked happily and expertly in "the-garden-down-by-the-road." It gave him a few days in which the only required decisions were which weeds to tackle next.

His other delight was learning about small-town America. He had read a great deal, but was still amazed at both the freedoms and the independence of people here. He knew that our news organizations were free to criticize the government at all levels, and his had to toe the government line. But perhaps a more impressive example came during our visit to the Fourth of July Parade in Williston. He sat on a grassy bank with us, watching the line led by an impressive Uncle Sam on stilts. There were little floats, fire engines, kids on decorated bikes, and town officials, all happy, all applauded by the crowds lining the Main Street.

"Does the government make all the towns do this?" asked our guest.

"Oh, no, most towns and cities in America celebrate Independence Day just because they want to. The government has nothing to do with it."

"Then who pays for it?"

"The people do."

"No government money?"

"No government money. Townspeople make the floats, families dress up the kids and bikes, and they have a townwide cookout later in the day, where everybody enjoys grilled chicken and hot dogs on the town green. Many towns and cities have concerts at night, and fireworks. The towns pay for those, and sometimes area businesses help with the cost. Soft drinks for the picnics are often free from local dairies and bottling companies."

Our guest was only with us for a few days, but we know he developed a feel for smalltown America no book could provide. Our one embarrassment was that he brought us some lovely gifts - a picture of a panda under a bamboo tree, made of silvery bits of shell; and two cushion covers of Chinese silk with delicate flowering trees brocaded on them. A present of Vermont maple candy (he couldn't carry syrup in his luggage) didn't measure up, but it was all he'd accept.

That one visit made it a memorable summer. Vermont showed off with gorgeous sunny weather during his visit, even though we really needed some rain.

I'm Ruth Page, now in Shelburne, Vermont.
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