ROBERT SIEGEL, host: The U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, went home today; not to Seattle, his old stomping ground, but to his ancestral village in southern China. It was his third trip back, but his first since being appointed ambassador to Beijing. At first, Chinese Internet users disparaged him as a fake foreign devil who can't speak Chinese. But now, the criticism is giving weight to admiration. NPR's Louisa Lim went with Locke to his family's village.
GARY LOCKE: (Speaking foreign language) Hi, I'm Gary Locke, U.S. Ambassador to China.
LOUISA LIM: This is how Gary Locke kicked off his return to his ancestral home, with a video posted on China's version of Twitter. It's a nod to his status as an Internet sensation. He told reporters he's been taken aback by his runaway popularity.
LOCKE: It was completely unexpected and certainly not by design. In fact, I'm somewhat overwhelmed by all the microblogging that occurs here in China, or the use of smartphones and people who want to take pictures of myself and my family.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two three...
LIM: That much was clear straight away. Press conference over, the reporters elbowed each other out of the way to have their pictures taken with Locke.
LOCKE: Oh, it's really good. It's nice and gritty. My mom used to make it fresh.
LIM: The trip to Guangdong province is about more than just business. One stop was a snack shop serving his favorite dessert: sesame paste. This, too, became a photo op as owner He Zhilian trembled with pride at the celebrity slurping her sesame soup.
HE ZHILIAN: (Through Translator) Even though he's an official, he's an ordinary person. He's very down to earth, so I'm extremely honored that he's come to my shop.
LIM: Ambassador Locke has shot to fame, not for his meetings with top Chinese officials, but for his ordinariness. He carries his own backpack, travels in economy and buys coffee with discount vouchers. Such low key behavior highlights the luxurious lifestyles of some Chinese officials, so much so that one party-controlled newspaper published an editorial on its website saying Locke's posting was a neocolonialist plot to strengthen pro-U.S. forces in China. He shrugged this off.
LOCKE: There's no way this was a U.S. government neocolonialist plot.
LIM: But being in the spotlight does have its advantages.
LOCKE: If anything, the added attention, greater visibility that I've been able to generate, if that can help open doors and help bridge and expose more Chinese to American values, American way of life, then that's great.
LIM: We've now stopped in Taishan, the closest town to Gary Locke's ancestral home and he's meeting here with Communist Party officials and the mayor. We're in this extraordinary hotel. I'm standing in this massive domed corridor with marble floors. It's kind of like Versailles in Guangdong.
Next stop, a kindergarten where crowds mob him, hands outstretched. This ambassador is a rock star here, despite his inability to speak Chinese. Zhao Jie is one of those out on the street waiting to see this hometown boy made good.
ZHAO JIE: (Through Translator) I've been following him on the Internet. I think for an ethnically Chinese person to become an American ambassador makes us all very proud.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LIM: Drums and line dancers greet Locke at his ancestral village, Jilong. His sick great uncle is waiting for him. It's Locke's first trip back since his father died in January and he has family business to attend to in the ancestral home, a modest brick building in the traditional style. Locke climbs a ladder to place a photo of his father in the family shrine.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIRECRACKERS)
LIM: Amid fireworks, he visits the family grave with 40-odd members of his extended family. They bow to the grave, burn incense and give offerings of two suckling pigs. Locke's sister, Rita Yoshihara, has accompanied him.
RITA YOSHIHARA: I think because my dad passed away that it's different this time, so it felt good to have closure and just to come and pay respect. Yeah. So it's been a little bit emotional, but it's been good.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Your grandfather (unintelligible).
LIM: The personal nature of this visit underlines Locke's roots and the personal is political. In this social media age, Locke's ethnicity means he has a chance to make an impact like few ambassadors ever have before.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Guangzhou.