New Yorkers like to think they live at the centre of the world. Whatever you are looking for, be it artefacts excavated from ancient Egyptian tombs or ingredients for Ethiopian food, you can probably find it in the Big Apple.
For New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, however, the city cannot rest on its laurels just yet; there remains an intolerable hole in its collection: a pair of giant pandas.
"How can you not love a panda," asks Maloney. "They are black, they are white and they are Asian. They represent the diversity of the city."
Maloney says her love of the bears began after her two daughters developed an obsession when they were young. Now, though, her youngest has given up a childhood dream of becoming a panda preservation scientist and enrolled in business school instead.
For years, Maloney has been trying to persuade China to offer New York a pair of its national treasures, her focus having sharpened last summer, when she travelled to Sichuan province and saw real pandas for the first time. During that trip, she met Li Xiaolin, president of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, to make her request in person. Later, she approached Chinese Vice-Premier Liu Yandong over the matter.
That seemed to get the ball rolling. In May, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sent a letter to Li to show his support for the panda plan. In October, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai sent a letter to Maloney telling her Beijing no longer offered pandas to foreign countries as gifts but would consider loaning a pair for cooperative research, and China was willing to establish the first such research project in New York.
Then, on November 13, Bill de Blasio's director of intergovernmental affairs sent a letter to Li to demonstrate the support of the New York mayor, who had hitherto been lukewarm about the plan. The letter made it clear that as long as the pandas don't cost taxpayers a cent, the city would be a willing host. The mayor also suggested the bears would find a good home at the Bronx Zoo, which hosted pandas in the 1980s.
A pair of pandas would cost US$2 million a year to support but Maloney says she plans to start a private fund and has already secured commitments from rich individuals and institutions.
Currently, four zoos in the US, including the National Zoo in Washington, are exhibiting 13 pandas on loan from China.
"No one can forget the time when the two pandas Mao [Zedong] gave to [Richard] Nixon arrived at the National Zoo," says Maloney, in reference to China's gifts to the US in 1972, as part of the thaw in relations between the two nations. "Bringing giant pandas to New York City would … be an incredible gift to the children of our city and beyond, and a chance to expand and deepen cultural understanding between our two countries."
Maloney says she has been wracking her brain to come up with something New York could give China in return. Unfortunately, when New Yorkers think of creatures in the city, it's usually giant subway rats that come to mind.