Three weeks ago I was finishing up the informal Saturday morning lecture that I deliver once a month to an adult education English class at a Shanghai-area community college (the topic that week was the American media), when a thirty-ish young man in a baseball cap raised his hand and announced, in swampy English: “I’m an Obamanachpht.”
The last part was unclear to me. “A what?”
“An Obamanachphhhth,” he repeated with emphasis.
I shook my head, invited him to the blackboard and asked that he spell it out.
“OBAMANIAC,” he wrote, in carefully drawn letters. “Many in China,” he told me with a confident nod. “Many of us.”
|'Oba-Mao' t-shirts in the tourist Houhai district of Beijing (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)|
On Sunday, President Obama arrives in Shanghai for a four-day visit that is among the most anticipated by a foreign leader to China in more than a decade. No doubt, such major diplomatic concerns as rising trade tensions and the upcoming Copenhagen climate-change summit are factors in the frenzied attention being lavished on Obama’s impending arrival. But equally important is the intense, rock star-like popularity that Obama enjoys among average Chinese. In my Shanghai neighborhood, and in large cities up and down China’s East Coast, Oba-Mao T-shirts are readily available (the Beijing authorities rounded up supplies of the T-shirt in that city, early this week), and copies of his books can be found in pirate DVD shops, subway stations, and on street corners. Meanwhile, Chinese newspapers, magazines, and television stations are devoting intense, often fawning coverage to his life story—even as these same newspapers and magazines simultaneously give voice to a strident economic nationalism totally at odds with the policies being espoused by Obama’s Administration.