The Foreign Service Journal, March 2024

88 MARCH 2024 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL When I took up my assignment as consular chief in Chengdu in 1998, little did I know what I was getting into. Everyone understood that it was the jumping-off point for Tibet and that Tibetans and other minority nationalities lived just a few hours west and south of the city. That was a big reason why I had bid on the post and endured two years of Mandarin at the Foreign Service Institute. But soon I was made aware of a fact that came to define the post for many: Chengdu was Panda Central. AmConsulate Chengdu spent a considerable amount of time ensuring that official visitors felt satisfied they had taken advantage of their visit to enjoy the Panda Experience. b Whether it was the deputy chief of mission in Beijing, China desk people from State, or congressional staff aides, they all clamored for photos of themselves with one of these cuddly creatures. For those not satisfied with a tame visit to the nearby Chengdu Panda Research Center, that meant taking the Serving at the Panda Post BY DOUG KELLY REFLECTIONS Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, Doug Kelly joined the Foreign Service in 1987 after working as a surgical nurse in Vermont and a Peace Corps health volunteer in Congo. He spent most of his 22 years as an FSO in China and India. Doug and his wife, Laurel, now split their time between Berkeley, California, and Ludlow, Kentucky. visitors on an all-day trip deep into the mountains to the high bamboo forests of the Wolong National Nature Reserve. All of us at the consulate reveled in Chengdu’s reputation as the home and center of all things panda. We entertained our visitors with panda jokes (A panda walks into a bar …), and the consulate’s monthly newsletter was “The Panda Post.” We even thought of dressing a colleague up in a panda suit and letting him roam the atrium for our guests’ entertainment. He demurred. What is it about pandas that elicits this response in people? Whatever it is, it is certainly real, and now with the recent decision by China to recall the pandas from American zoos, a certain national CHENSIYUAN “panda withdrawal” is going on among the general public. The National Zoo’s panda family— Mei Xiang the mom, Tian Tian the dad, and their son, Xiao Qi Ji—flew back to Chengdu in early November of last year. This news got me thinking of when they first came to America, and the small part I played in their journey. b By way of background, in 1972, during President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai announced a gift of a pair of pandas. The pair, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, produced five cubs during their time at the National Zoo, but none of them survived A trio of pandas chomp on bamboo at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan, circa 2011.