Editor's note: Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, Jr. is sending updates to The Times while he's in China.
Shahe City, now officially Hammond's Sister City, was an awesome experience. Quite frankly, after leaving Beijing, I wasn't really expecting much from an industrial city of 150,000 people. However, after two days of a jammed packed schedule, I have to say Hammond and Shahe are a perfect match for Sister Cities. Both are industrial, both are in the shadow of a much larger city, and the people of both cities are wonderful.
Our first day (Tuesday) was action packed from beginning to end. In fact, we probably had WAY TOO MUCH jammed into a single day. We visited a Research and Development company for the manufacturing of glass that can only be compared to something you would see in the Silicon Valley (California). We visited a glass manufacturing company that was less than 10 years old. In fact, most of Shahe is brand new, they are undergoing a large expansion, expecting their population to increase by 300% in the next ten years. Believe me, when you see the new condominium skyscrapers and new infrastructure they are building, there is no doubt in my mind that their projections will turn out to be correct.
We also visited the Shahe Sanitary District plant, which processes the solid waste of the residents of Shahe City. Believe me, it did not smell like roses, although I learned that the Shahe plant uses their "clean" water to cool down their power plant, which I thought was a creative use of "dirty" water. Even their finished product in this plant was not close to drinkable. American environmental standards are markedly superior to those in China.
Another interesting fact about the environment, you cannot see the stars at night (because of the pollution), and you can actually look straight at the sun during the sunniest of days (the smog cuts down on the intensity of the sun so that it looks like a burning light with not nearly the intensity of the sun we are accustomed to in America). Many people think the EPA has overstepped its bounds in the USA, but a visit to China reminds you that our country's environment is the envy of many in China. It is one of the things they complimented Hammond on, the clean environment!
We visited beautiful parks that were much larger and newer than any park we have in the region. And the meals here, lunch and dinner, are three hours long, with lots of "Gambe" involved, which means slamming white wine (actually closer to Everclear or strong vodka) 15 to 20 times per meal. In this culture, drinking with your partners builds trust. If you don't drink with them, they feel that you don't trust them, and they will not do business with you. So, being the good Irish boy that I am, I obliged, many times! By the way, being the mayor means that you drink three times as much as the other members of the group, so I was foggy headed as we woke up Wednesday morning, which was the most important day of our visit.
Wednesday was the day for our Sister City Ceremony. However, first we had another break neck schedule. We first visited a Carbon Black manufacturing facility, which is a key ingredient in making tires. That plant, although profitable for the owners (the Government), was very dirty. It would make the dirtiest plants in north Lake County look clean by comparison. It was technological in every respect, except for the horrible emissions it emitted. I know for a fact that my environmental director in Hammond, Ron Novak, would still be there citing them for their many pollution deficiencies! But not in China, they are decades behind America in this regard.
We then visited a brand new museum / auditorium that can only be compared to something like the Chicago Theatre, except it was much larger, much newer and more technologically advanced. It was a truly amazing. From there, another lunch, this time without the "Gambe's"... after all, we had an official ceremony staring us in the face in two hours.
We finished our crazy, break-neck schedule, by going to Shahe's #1 public school. Public schools in China are different than the schools in America. In their schools, the students actually live on campus, and hardly see their parents (only on weekends and holidays). The students typical day is from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m... obviously a hard working student population...something us Americans need to take note of, these people are working hard on the education of their future generations while we, in Indiana, are crippling our schools with inadequate funding of education. This will not bode well for our country in the future, I am sure.
The students were awesome, interested, smart and very happy to see these American visitors. I must have taken a hundred pictures with the students, and shaken a thousand hands of their staff and students. The response was overwhelming. We were literally treated like rock-stars instead of public servants. Being Mayor here is ALOT different than being a mayor in America. Their mayors are treated like royalty (literally)... they won't even let me carry my bags, and my hotel room (provided free of charge) is bigger than many of the homes in our region. It is actually quite overwhelming.
We finished out trip to Shahe School with a planned basketball game between our delegation and the Shahe Municipal team (a team that has played together for years). We played in 35F weather, in rain and sleet, on a very wet and brand new basketball court. Our audience, who waited for us for an hour in the rain, numbered over 300 kids and teachers. I am sad to say, we were beaten by the Chinese team. Yes, we lost to a much shorter team in a sport our country created... but then again, I'm a Mayor, not a basketball player :)
Next was the Sister City ceremony, which went very well. It started off with a presentation from Shahe City officials describing their city to us foreigners. We then proceeded to give our presentation to them as well. We will make that presentation available on gohammond.tv once we arrive home (as well as the many videos we are taking with a flip camera we take along for all of our excursions). The signing ceremony, like most Chinese meetings, took over two hours and was VERY formal. The national media as well as the local media covered the event from start to finish. Our visit is big news in Shahe City, it seems as if every resident of the city knows foreign dignitaries are in town. They are treating us with a kindness I did not expect at all. In fact, I'm going to go so far as to say my impression of China, before we arrived, has been blown away by the actual people that I have met. The Chinese are interested in us, and like Americans very much, contrary to what many Americans think about this county and its residents.
After the Sister City signing ceremony, a three hour question and answer session followed (oh how the Chinese enjoy long, formal, meetings). We were then off to dinner (surprise!!). the dinner was excellent (as usual). It was more of a celebration, now that the Sister City signing was officially done. More Gambe's, great food, lots of autographs and photos of me and the waiters and staff of the restaurant we ate at. As we left, the owner shut the restaurant down, took the entire staff outside in the rain, and waved goodbye to our van as we left. Of course, being the politician I am, I got a great photo with dozens of this restaurant's employees as we left.
We finished the night with another Chinese tradition, Karaoke. I think Phil Taillon got me on tape singing Tom Petty's "Last Dance with Mary Jane"... I hope that tape never makes it to the light of day... I'd lose votes for sure :)
Tomorrow, unfortunately, we leave Shahe City for our next presentation, this time in the southern Chinese City of Guanzho, which should be MUCH warmer than either Shahe City, or Beijing for that matter. While you, in the Region, have been enjoying 80F weather, we in China are suffering thru 35F weather with sleet and rain. We deserve warmer weather, and I'm looking forward to the next leg of our trip.
More from Wednesday
Today (Wednesday) we toured a carbon black manufacturer, which is the largest in the world and an essential component to making tires. We then went to see the new arts building, parks and city square- without sounding repetitious, the facility is truly magnificent. Shahe City is rebuilding itself and construction is everywhere! There is a vast difference between the old and new city, but it's pretty clear that modernism is on the move.
It's important to note that people here are very proud of their city, their companies, and their country. Pride is something that we certainly have fallen behind our Chinese counterparts in.
We visited the high school where 6,000 students attend and many are interested in an American college education. We also played basketball, outside in driving rain and sleet. We lost to the local party 6-4. Frankly, we couldn't hold on the ball because it was soaking wet and even if we did, our fingers were too cold to grasp it. They wanted to cancel the event, but the Mayor was right: the kids had stood in the rain to see us play, so we gave them quite a performance.
Later today, we will sign the Sister City agreement with our newly found friends and meeting with successful business owners who may have an interest in investment in Hammond. I can't help but think that such investment is imminent, as they have a profound interest in our city and our country.
Tom Dabertin, Chief of Staff for Mayor Thomas McDermott, Jr.