Peng Di and Qian Xing had come to Washington to cover the Reagan- Gorbachev summit for the New China News Agency and a Chinese publication called "Outlook," but when that was over they didn't want to go straight home. The District of Columbia was, after all, Beijing's "sister city" and they wanted to know more about this distant relative.
As their tour guide on Christmas Eve, my first thought was to take them to our version of Chinatown, where the $1 million Chinese arch is stretched across H Street NW. But they had already heard about "China Street," and weren't particularly impressed.
"It's kinda small, isn't it?" Peng Di said.
Although Peng Di and Qian Xing had been political reporters in Washington for five years before returning to China three years ago, they had never seen many of the city's neighborhoods. They wanted to know more about regular, everyday people.
The Chinese jounalists, who have been married for 44 years, had lived in one of the city's more affluent neighborhoods on Massachusetts Avenune NW near Embassy Row. So I suggested we go to Southeast Washington and make our first stop the 7th District police station on Mississippi Avenue SE.
I expected to see thugs being hauled off to holding cells. Instead, we found the watch commander wrapping Christmas presents. Kids who would probably not get anything for the holidays came to the station and picked up gifts that had been donated by police officers.
"We try to keep a rapport with as many of the children as we can," the commander told Peng Di and Qian Xing. "We are making a lot of new friends."
This was all well and good -- but this was the busiest precinct in the city.
There was an ugly side to the "sister city," and I wanted Peng Di and Qian Xing to see it. Qian Xing had said, "A country is not just a national government. It is people, and all kinds of people."
Driving toward all kinds of people at the corner of South Capitol and Atlantic streets SE, I explained how groups of people who stand on a corner making cash transactions are dealing in drugs. It turned out that these people were buying and selling Christmas trees.
"Everybody is into the holidays this year," said Elliot Worley, who lives a few blocks away, and owns a tree farm in West Virginia. "They're doing it for the children."
Worley is a graduate of Tennessee State University and worked in the Reagan administration at the Old Executive Office building.
"You are a very educated man," Peng Di said with surprise.
"A lot of people have the wrong impression of Southeast," Worley replied. "Just because there are a few pockets of drug activity people think everybody over here is uneducated or involved in drugs."
Peng Di and Qian Xing looked at me.
Maybe we should see a couple of those "pockets," I suggested.
Rounding the curve at the "notorious" Condon Terrace, we saw nothing more than twinkling holiday lights and parents carrying gifts. Over on Xenia Street, kids were throwing a football and making playful kung fu gestures at passing cars.
"They are having fun," Qian Xing noted.
So we drove on, headed towards JB's Barber shop near Alabama Avenue because the owner, James Bunn, is an advisory neighborhood commissioner and would know where the action was. Sure enough, he did. It was indoors, at dinner tables and under Christmas trees.
"There are a lot of problems out here," Bunn acknowledged. "But people are working hard to solve them. Christmas is just that time of year when people try a little harder."
I thought my guests would be disappointed because we had not seen any pathology on the street. By setting out to look for it, I certainly hadn't paid attention to much else.
But Peng Di and Qian Xing were impressed. They had gone out looking not for stereotypes, but simply for what they could see. And what they saw was a neighborhood of everyday people, with the same hopes for happiness as everybody else.