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Dr. Elizabeth Dahl is an East Asia expert and has spent a total of nearly three years in China. This summer she has gone to Beijing to try to volunteer as a translator for tourists during the Olympics. Dr. Dahl shares her experiences in this journal.

 

 

 

Counting Down to the Olympics

July 25, 2008: I arrived in Beijing in the afternoon on Wednesday, July 23rd. As the plane started to descend into Beijing’s airport, I began to wonder whether the city’s environmental improvement and social engineering projects would have had the desired effects. As soon as I saw the smoggy air, I had my answer. Despite the fact that the Chinese government had shut down coal-using factories and limited car use in Beijing and environs, the atmosphere seemed to remain as polluted as ever.

As I left the airport, I soon realized that the attempts at social reform also had not entirely eradicated the smoking in restaurants, spitting in public, use of plastic bags, or other behaviors that could be seen as poor manners or un-environmental. All the same, there were many eager volunteers at the airport in matching blue and white outfits with yellow fanny-packs, ready to help travelers navigate Beijing (see photo of volunteer in booth that features Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball star).

Much as was the case with Japan’s first Olympiad in Tokyo in 1964 and South Korea’s in 1988, China sees its Olympic debut as signaling that it has arrived on the world scene. The Olympics are coming, and Beijing will be ready to show the world that it can put on an excellent show.

Even so, it doesn’t take long to see that China remains a developing country. International visitors will be struck by the sheer numbers of Chinese and the glimpses of grinding poverty. Streets still are swept by hand with crude brooms, and skinny laborers do many tasks that would be done by machine in the U.S. Workers on a break may nap in the open while old men walk past with their hands characteristically clasped behind their backs.

 

 

July 26, 2008: The lay of the land: Bei-jing (pronounced bay-jing with a hard j—not sounding like the color “beige”) means “northern capital.” According to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Population and Family Planning in December 2007, Beijing’s population is above 17.4 million people, but that figure includes migrant workers from China’s countryside. The World Gazetteer lists Beijing proper as a far more modest 7.7 million, with Shanghai listed as the largest city in the world in 2008 at over 15.5 million (or nearly 19 million according to different statistics if migrant, non-registered workers are included in the tallies). These figures from the World Gazetteer are interesting to compare to top American cities such as New York at 8 million and Los Angeles at 3.8 million inhabitants.

The weather in Beijing can be cold and dusty in the winter, but one would never know it from the typically hot and humid weather experienced this week. The rasp of cicadas has been almost deafening at times where I am staying (on Beijing’s outskirts). At the same time, however, Beijing has taken care to plant flowers and colorful banners everywhere to greet visitors for the Olympics.

This oppressive weather reminds me to give a few tips to any potential travelers to these Olympics: Be sure to pack small packets of tissues, antibacterial hand sanitizer, mosquito repellent, and antiperspirant if you need it. Beijing’s business community and government have made strides in providing toilet paper and soap in bathrooms, but if tourists go off the beaten path, they will soon encounter problems. As for antiperspirant, it is relatively difficult to find in China as some college students have discovered here (although last year’s arrival of the chain Watsons is now a big improvement). Nearly everything else one could need is available for purchase in various stores.

Meanwhile, I am getting back into the swing of things now that I’ve gotten over the worst of my jet lag. My ability to speak Chinese is improving every hour now, although I believe that remembering languages is not like remembering how to ride a bike. It’s more like remembering how to ride a nearly tame horse—one aches after the first ride because of all the muscles that are unaccustomed to being used that way, and more to the point, every once in a while one can get tossed! Fortunately Chinese people tend to be impressed by and are supportive of anyone who has attempted to learn their language.

 

July 27, 2008: Beijing’s traffic: Talk with any Americans who have visited China and you’ll hear that navigating Chinese traffic usually scared the pants off of them, but there actually is a sense of logic to Chinese traffic (even if it isn’t readily apparent). Crossing the street is a bit daunting—even when one gets the walk signal, there’s a strong chance that specific lanes of traffic still are coming right at you. Given that most Olympic visitors won’t have enough time to learn the logic behind Chinese traffic patterns, the best advice is to cross right next to other Chinese and follow what they do closely until you get safely to the other side.

In terms of getting around, the subway has been vastly expanded and costs only ¥2 (approximately 28¢) per trip. There even is a monorail line from the airport into the downtown area. While I haven’t tried that option, I finally got to try one of the nicer, shiny new subway cars, complete with flat-screen monitors displaying information about the different Olympic sports about to be seen. Another improvement is that, after years of cheap onion-paper tickets handed out by one person and then torn by another, one can get a refillable subway/bus pass and go through ticket gates.

I’ve already mentioned the flowers, banners, and displays everywhere that are parts of Beijing’s “facelift” for the Olympics. Another part is with the taxi cabs. For years, China’s cabs have been dirty with soot and the drivers not able to speak English (even their Mandarin often is a highly localized dialect that can confuse newcomers). While the cabbies’ lack of ability to speak English or other foreign languages will be problematic for the Olympics (only partially helped by a taped welcome in Chinese and English), my guess is that the tons of volunteers will have to do their best to get international guests to and from hotels and Olympic venues.

Meanwhile, the taxis’ cleanliness issue has been better addressed. American students studying abroad often have complained about the dirtiness of the taxis, particularly those who were going to interview for a prestigious internship only to ruin their clean white shirt by strapping on a seatbelt in a taxi. I’d done the same to a khaki jacket numerous times. Part of the reason for the sootiness of the seat belts was from their disuse. In the past, it was considered impolite to wear a seatbelt if a guest in a car—doing so signaled a lack of trust of the driver. I sometimes got around this issue by saying that my mother would kill me if I didn’t wear one—it’s always good to counter with a strong case of “filial piety.” I need to respect the elders of my family!

Anyway, more and more new two-toned Beijing cabs are on the streets, although some older red taxis remain. Word also is that a new policy is being enacted starting August 1 st: clean cabs and uniforms with a tie for all cab drivers (see photo below). This dress code also seems like quite a change after many sooty years of smoke-filled cabs. We’ll see how well the policy works. I also noticed right away that cabs are more expensive: ¥10 to start (about $1.40); ¥2 increments after that. Again, this price is incredibly inexpensive compared to the U.S., but inflation definitely has caused the prices to go up since last year.

Coming soon : Beijing’s environmental challenges, censorship issues, and trying to volunteer.

July 28, 2008: More traveling tips: Before I continue to describe China’s current situation, let me reply to some questions and also add some other tips for travelers.

First, let me clarify that just because there is a lack of deodorant/antiperspirant in China does not mean that Chinese people are a smelly lot! We Westerners as a group just seem to sweat more—or “glisten” if you prefer.

Additional tips for travelers :

1. Carry at least one business card or brochure of your hotel at all times with its address in Chinese characters; also carry a Chinese-English map (free ones are provided by the large volunteer desk at the airport’s international baggage claim area).

2. Do not drink the water ! Five-star hotels may have filtered water available in their rooms, but be certain to double-check with the front desk. Otherwise a carafe of filtered water or bottled water usually is provided in hotel rooms. Also bottled water (shui, pronounced “shway”) also is available for purchase just about everywhere.

3. If not staying in a three-star hotel or above, I’d definitely invest in a pair of flip-flops for the shower. Floors can get quite dirty in China.

4. Women at least can learn from the locals and escape some of the sun’s heat by purchasing an inexpensive floral umbrella and a Chinese fan to use when outside. They do help!

5. I’ve been checking several web weather forecasts each day, and have found the CNN forecast seems to be the most accurate (it’s HOT here!).

While the level of English spoken by volunteers will vary greatly, most people will understand a few key words and phrases in English, and a little creative mime works wonders too. At the same time, of course, it’s always good to try to speak a little of the native language.

Useful words and phrases :

[Certain sounds in Mandarin do not have a direct equivalent in the English language. When that is the case, you will see the suggestion that the sounds be “spoken quickly”—that way you may mimic the sound.]

  • “thank you”: xie-xie (pronounced “shee-yeh, shee-yeh,” spoken quickly).
  • “hello”: ni hao (pronounced “nee how”)
  • “yes”: dui (pronounced “dway”)
  • “no”: bu (pronounced “boo”)
  • Chinese unit of money : yuan (pronounced “yoo-wan,” spoken quickly), more commonly referred to as kuai (pronounced “koo-wī, spoken quickly, rhyming with “eye”).

Since politeness works wonders, a failsafe word when trying to get someone’s attention or help can be “please” or qing (pronounced “ching”), stated in the form of a question.

 

July 29, 2008: Freedoms during the Olympics: One of the biggest issues regarding the 2008 Olympics in Beijing has been whether international and Chinese citizens alike would have more freedoms—to protest, surf the Internet freely, broadcast politically sensitive information, and the like—in this authoritarian dictatorship. The picture thus far appears to be decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, there are no blocks when I surf the Internet (although in the past most of the banned sites were the Mandarin versions of the webpages—not the English versions), although I’ve found that on occasion there is a potentially sensitive photo or graph that refuses to download. I even am able to get Amnesty International’s latest statement on Beijing’s lack of freedoms, although it is true that an even more sensitive AI webpage remains blocked. Meanwhile, word is that such websites as BBC News finally recently have become available in Chinese, although I cannot seem to get the site to load.

There also has been understandable upset among various media who learned that their Internet use would be monitored in official Olympics venues. We’ll have to see how the overall situation plays out in the upcoming days, but for now human rights groups see it as further proof that the Chinese government cannot be trusted. I also saw a Tokyo news van being pulled over by the police. I didn’t know the reason and didn’t stay to find out—it isn’t wise to be too nosy in China.

In terms of public protests, they are allowed during the Olympics if people apply for a proper permit—a hurdle that naturally inhibits such activities. Also, there only are three allocated protest sites, all a fair distance from the main sites for the Olympics. Still, as my hosts note, the mere fact that protests are being allowed in downtown Beijing is an achievement in itself. Western media may downplay the significance of this change, but my friends are correct that “China is learning.” It just isn’t happening at a pace likely to meet with international—nor domestic protesters’—approval.

Most foreigners, unless they go out of their way to be unruly, will not experience as much of the government’s repression beyond the anti-terrorism safety measures. Of course, I did notice that, as a “foreign guest,” I had to state on my visa application where I’d be living during my time in Beijing. If foreigners choose not to stay at a hotel or guesthouse, they must register with the local police within twenty-four hours of arriving.

Still, it cannot compare to the immense amount of repressive social engineering that the locals have had to face. Many migrant workers have been ordered to leave town before the Olympics (see photo of young migrant worker with his belongings waiting to leave town). The environmental restrictions also have meant the loss of business for numerous small enterprises that cannot deliver their wares until the end of the September when the Paralympics end. It seems that many Beijingers simply have left town in order to escape the hassle of being here during the Olympics.

One of the aspects of China that will be on display during the Olympics is its citizens’ intense devotion to their homeland. Last summer, one acquaintance who attends a university in Canada complained to me that most Chinese are taking the Olympics (Ao-yun-hui, pronounced ow-yoon-hway) so seriously that one can’t even joke about it. I’m not surprised that this comment came from a Chinese studying overseas because cross-cultural experiences can provide some distance from—and hence reflection about—this phenomenon. The Olympics is seen as a world-class victory for China and hence no laughing matter, even if I can’t help but wonder if it’s not more like China’s own debutante ball (one to put Omaha’s bizarre Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation Ball to shame).

So, prepare for quite a show with the Opening Ceremony,, although not one necessarily to American tastes. I’m envisioning a few blow-dried boy band groups (think like the “Backstreet Boys”), Jackie Chan and other Chinese stars singing away, and a display of Chinese patriotism/nationalism so alien to the U.S. that it’ll draw plenty of commentary. Since my first time living in China, I have been struck by how openly sentimental many Chinese can get when singing. What would strike the average American teenager as truly corny is embraced here. That helps explain why “easy listening” tunes by Celene Dion and Kenny G still are big here, and nearly every coffee house I’ve visited has been playing Norah Jones (whose music I find, sorry to say, quite boring). Anyway, I would not be surprised to have some television coverage of Chinese citizens weeping during the ceremony, overcome with emotion about seeing this Olympic dream come true.

July 30, 2008: Volunteers and foreign languages: Thus far, despite numerous attempts to contact its organizers, I still have not heard from the Olympics about my offer to volunteer. All of the emails have gone without reply and the official phone number just rings and rings. It makes me slightly feel better, however, to know that many others also have been turned away. Even my current hosts’ daughter, a young woman who attended Oberlin College and then University of Wisconsin-Madison for her Master’s degree, also has had the same experience despite trying to contact the organizers last year. Such lack of interest in a truly bilingual native of Beijing gives some indication of what is afoot.

As my hosts and I discussed over dinner, the Chinese government has gone in an entirely different direction. Rather than relying on many foreigners and Chinese who are living abroad, the government simply enlisted Beijing-area university students. Such students are China’s best and brightest and have had years of English lessons, sometimes even from native speakers of English.

In addition to the busloads of student volunteers in their blue, yellow, and white running suits and yellow ID badges, neighborhood committees also have been organized to help visitors. One only needs to see the small groups of elderly, wearing bright-red bands on their sleeves and sometimes also red ID badges around their necks, sitting out in their residential area in case someone needs their aid. The last group of helpers includes the police and guards, many of whom also wear bright-red armbands.

Together, these roughly 75,000 volunteers and workers are managed via their respective danwei (pronounced dahn-way) or “work units.” While the danwei are not as central to Chinese lives as during the Communist era when they were responsible for one’s housing, education, job, health care, retirement, and so forth, these work units still organize a lot of daily life—at least for officially registered residents (the “floating population” of migrant labor will be discussed in the future).

In short, from a human resources perspective, these volunteers are far simpler to manage than a more diverse crew of foreigners, “overseas Chinese,” and locals. It makes sense from that viewpoint. I’m sure that some foreigners have been utilized by the Olympics, although perhaps some may be employed professionally as translators instead of being volunteers. I have not seen a single foreign volunteer thus far, and that’s saying a lot since Olympics volunteers are everywhere.

All the same, I cannot help thinking that this choice is more than a bit risky. The level of English (let alone other languages) of the volunteers is going to be uneven at best. For purposes of comparison, imagine if the U.S. held an Olympics and only recruited local university students to help translate French and German. To push the comparison further, imagine that these university students have never been to a French- or German-speaking country, and may never have even had a teacher who was a native speaker. Becoming fluent in another language under these circumstances is a particularly impressive feat!

Also the volunteers are everywhere, but not necessarily right where they are most needed. In subways stations, there is room for confusion at every transaction point (ticket counters and machines, the poorly organized security lines for bags, the gates), but right now the volunteers are only on the subway platforms.

Since I am nothing if not persistent, I introduced myself to a pair of volunteers at one of the quieter subway stops and asked that they talk with their supervisor on my behalf. I said that I would be of use even if just “polishing” English translations. I said that, of course, Chinese people do an excellent job of translation—at the same time, however, the best foreign language translations are done by a pair of translators; in this case, one a native speaker of Chinese and the other of English. I pointed to the large sign next to them that states that the volunteers are ready to “serve you wholeheartly.” I mentioned that it was a small error, but one that I’d be able to help prevent in the future. As I pulled away in the subway, I saw one of the volunteers looking closely at the sign, which is displayed at just about every volunteer booth.

She called me back a couple of days later to explain that the application window had closed for volunteers, but I could help polish English any number of places. I told her that I already do that (for my friends), so I didn’t need to do that unless it was connected to the Olympics. I also said I’d be happy to stay by a taxi stand and help in that way. She said she’d keep trying to see if there was any possibility for me, which was quite kind.

I first got the idea of volunteering last year in Beijing when a new friend, a young woman from Wisconsin, told me she wanted to do so. It is her dream—one she still hopes to fulfill despite also hearing nothing back from Olympic organizers. I would really like to help too, but initially I just thought of doing it informally at a taxi stand near one of the Olympic venues. I still plan to try, although only after trying repeatedly to get official recognition!

My reasons for volunteering have to do with helping at home as well as abroad, as my presence in Beijing might call attention to the need for more support for the liberal arts at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In particular, recent budget cuts have hit the College of Arts and Sciences hard. Such disciplines as English, history, foreign languages, mathematics, and the core sciences are the pillars of student learning, and any hollowing out of these and other CAS departments would do every UNO student a disservice.

It makes it all the more difficult, unfortunately, as faculty and students hope to address UNO’s lack of regular Mandarin language instruction and only two years of availability for Japanese. In this era of budget cuts for the liberal arts, it is difficult to justify adding new courses. All the same, such essential language courses will bring UNO into the 21 st century, bringing it up to par with peer institutions. In this era when some schools are beginning to provide Mandarin language classes to young children, this oversight needs to be addressed soon.

Given Omaha and Nebraska’s substantial international trade with Northeast Asia as well as U.S. Strategic Command’s nearby location and interest in this region, UNO is particularly well situated to develop these courses and have them serve students’ needs to adjust to a truly global economy. For example, just imagine our business graduates being better able to negotiate with their Northeast Asian counterparts because they are able to understand the languages and even can appreciate some of the history and customs of the other cultures. It stands to reason that we take the next step and fund these courses with help from forward-thinking individuals and business interests in Omaha and beyond.

 

July 31, 2008: Beijing’s environmental challenges: One of my friends wrote that she was enjoying my “blog in the smog”—it is, unfortunately, quite an appropriate name for it (see air quality of the area surrounding the Bird’s Nest Olympic venue below). I’ve been keeping close track of the government’s efforts to clean up Beijing’s air and environs. My friends emailed me before I left to let me know that they couldn’t pick me up at the airport because their car has an even-numbered license plate. Due to Beijing’s driving restrictions for the Olympics and Paralympics, car owners can only drive every other day. (My hosts joked that they and other even-numbered cars got a raw deal because July has thirty-one days, then August 1 st also is another odd-numbered day.) I often lose track of time when traveling, especially when different time zones are involved, but I soon found that I could figure out the day by looking at the license plates of all the parked cars at my hosts’ building.

In terms of the political impact of pollution, China’s authoritarian dictatorship makes such draconian measures possible. At the same time, however, there are noticeable limits to the reach of the law. One can shut down many coal-fired plants around Beijing, for example, but as scientific experts have pointed out, air pollution is not just a local issue. Also, many habits die hard, including my preference to take an air-conditioned taxi here rather than a jam-packed bus with open windows, or a middle-aged man’s to use a sputtering motorbike that spews white smoke. Still the reduction in street traffic has helped as well as the constant efforts of public workers to pick up litter, de-muck the canals, and use street sweeper trucks to hose down the streets.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s traffic last year was nearly unmanageable. In 2003, I saw a spike in automobile accidents as more and more people purchased cars (and didn’t wear seat belts), but that was nothing compared to Beijing’s air quality and traffic jams in 2007. Like happens in many countries, particularly developing ones, Chinese cars do not have catalytic converters to reduce air pollution. (In the U.S., environmental standards are the strongest for cars, while SUVs, trucks, motorcycles, and even gasoline-powered lawnmowers and leaf blowers are criticized as being more polluting.)

While the air quality has not been great, it is better than I recalled. As several internationals who live in China have told me, there has been noticeable improvement—there actually have been more days with beautiful blue skies! Those days used to be incredibly rare when I lived in Beijing in 2002-2003. I never had so many colds than I had during that time, and the colds felt different—like I had been smoking a pack or two of cigarettes a day. I also know that the chunks of rusty metal at the bottom of my thermos of boiled water (in 1990-1991 when I lived in Nanjing) were not good for my health, nor for the 1.2 billion Chinese also drinking the water then (now the official population figure is 1.3 billion Chinese). Now most Chinese who can afford it drink bottled water or even invest in a water filter for their homes instead, eschewing drinking the tap water. So while I have had students who aren’t convinced that pollution is a problem, my personal experience definitely has shaped my opinion!

In summary, there’s no way the air quality would be this good (relatively speaking) without the extra measures, but they only are temporary in nature. The government apparently is monitoring the air quality so closely so in case the air worsens before the Olympics begin, they may enact even further restrictions. Once the Olympics and Paralympics are over, however, it is likely that the traffic will return in force as well as the pollution problems. I would just add the point that developing countries emulate the practices of developed ones, so it would help if the United States, the EU, and other powerful countries demonstrated concrete commitment also to reduce emissions.

 

August 1: Hutongs: The other day, I moved from my friends’ home into a guesthouse located in what I find to be one of the more fascinating places in Beijing, the hutong. These are old, narrow alleyways that are relics of a bygone era. Their twists and turns evoke China’s imperial past, although they also demonstrate definite adaptation to modern times. In recent decades, many hutong were razed to make way for more modern buildings, but in time people came to recognize the architecture’s historical value and numerous ones were saved from destruction. I find hutong to provide a microcosm of life in Beijing.

Upon unloading my luggage, I decided to explore the neighboring areas around Gulou, or the city’s drum and bell towers. Before long, I start hearing the familiar word waiguoren (pronounced “why-goo-oh-rehn,” with “goo-oh” spoken quickly) or “foreigner”—literally “outside country person.” Chinese cultural practices often emphasize the difference between insiders and outsiders, and one only need note the central importance of gates and walls here—the Great Wall being the most obvious representative.

It soon becomes apparent that I’ve wandered deeper into the hutong and therefore people’s daily lives than normally happens, even though loads of international tourists are housed in hostels lining the main road. I make my way back to the main road so as not to be intrusive.

All the same, the walk brings back familiar sights, sounds, and smells—the unmistakable stench of public toilets, since many hutong do not have indoor plumbing. There also are old men wearing what many in the States call “wifebeater” shirts, old women in clashing prints (I’m not known by my students to be a slave to fashion, but even I know better than to pair a leopard print with a floral pattern, or paisley, or navy-blue tie die), workers crouching in the streets to take a short break, and shirtless men with their pant legs rolled up to minimize the heat. I see one man who has treated his cold or fever with the traditional Chinese medicinal practice of “cupping” his back with hot air to “release” the cold’s air that has entered the body (see photo).

Little dogs are getting walked too—Beijingers love their dogs, some of which look like expensive, well-groomed purebreds. (Northern Chinese disdain the eating of dogs—that’s more of a southern Chinese phenomenon and even there not as widespread as some would think.)

There’s a moment of shock when a young woman starts yelling at a little girl and hits her repeatedly with a fly swatter. An older woman comes from nearby and intervenes, soothing the girl and smiling as she separates her from the other woman. This display was so harsh that all the neighbors and passersby have stopped to watch what happens. A couple of older men are smiling—something I wouldn’t have understood when I first came to China. Sometimes in China, people smile or laugh at seeing or hearing someone else’s misfortune. It isn’t meant as condescending so much as it’s a sort of way of conveying sympathy or even empathy—in this case with the little girl. One old man in particular catches sight of my wincing reflexively and laughs at this foreigner’s response, and I roll my eyes at him to show what I think of the young woman, which makes him laugh even more. I move on.

All in all this walk reminds me that one can write an essay on anything in China during the first few weeks of being here. Many things strike one’s eyes, ears, and nose as strange, loud, or harsh. While much of Beijing is too cosmopolitan to show much interest in foreigners anymore, migrant workers and people in more remote areas of China still find foreigners incredibly fascinating, which accounts for the Chinese stare. The first year I lived in China, I used to feel acutely uncomfortable to be studied so intently whether I was eating (using chopsticks, no less), walking, talking—basically whether I was doing anything or nothing. In some cases, such stares could last for minutes. Nowadays, a foreigner has to do something truly bizarre to merit that kind of attention, although people still prize personal interaction with internationals.

August 2: Will China be ready for its close up? As time draws ever nearer, part of me is wondering what the best scenario will be for China’s relations with the rest of the world, the U.S. in particular. I’ve been watching the many TV and print advertisements, listening to the Olympic song “One world, one dream” that’s playing everywhere and absorbing the hype and product placements, and a number of realizations have been dawning on me.

All that I can think is what American television critics as well as journalists and commentators will make of China’s opening ceremonies. There’s sure to be numerous, cynical plays on the words “One World, One Dream,” for one. It is trying to be a sort of “We Are the World” kind of song. The song pronounces a sense of harmony that most Americans and others will see as an airbrushed portrait of reality, covering up the many human rights issues that China has. The version that I’ve seen is sung by a female pop singer and a more classically trained male singer, and I suspect it’ll just fall flat with most Western listeners.

Observers also will pick up on the nationalistic overtones—“overtones” might be too mild a term for some—of Chinese fans’ devoted behavior. One of the other frequent slogans one hears is jia you Zhongguo (pronounced “jee-yah yo jōng goo-oh,” with a hard “j” sound and “jee-yah” and “goo-oh” spoken quickly). This phrase can be translated several different ways—“Go China!” or “Come on, China!” or more awkwardly, “make an extra effort, China.” Depending on the event, there may be some clashes if the matches don’t go China’s way. So much is seen as riding on this Olympics that everyone is completely keyed up (see photo of car that says “Rise up! China!”—a phrase that is reminiscent of a quotation from Mao Zedong about China finally standing up for itself after years of imperialist domination).

In short, there are three possible scenarios that I can envision. First, that the Olympic Opening Ceremonies and Games will go smoothly—so smoothly that the U.S. and other countries will have all the more reason to fear the “big dragon,” China. The sight of the Chinese citizens’ fervor to their athletes and their country likely will make many Americans and other observers uneasy rather than emotionally moved.

Second, however, is the also reasonable possibility that there will be numerous glitches that indicate that China is “not ready for prime time.” As the electricity suddenly cut out in my Internet café this week, a Mexican national also there commented to me that China just is not ready for the Olympics despite all of the official statements to the otherwise. I agree that there almost certainly will be glitches—electrical, linguistic, political, and otherwise—during these Games. Such problems will cause some “loss of face” in China, and there actually may be some subsequent internal pressure on the Chinese government if enough of its citizens have that interpretation.

The third possibility is a combination of the first and the second scenarios, and I believe it is the most likely. Basically, these Olympics will be read as confirmation by those who believe wholeheartedly that China is a political, military, and economic threat, and by those who think that it is painfully obvious that China cannot play in the “big leagues.” There will be enough evidence available to support both positions. It will be quite interesting to see which interpretation becomes the most dominant. It also saddens me, because so many of my Chinese friends genuinely are thrilled by these Olympics and want to support their nation. It reminds me once again of how typical it is to have many different interpretations of the same event.


August 3: Migrant workers and class differences: When I was working in Beijing on my dissertation in 2002-2003, my goal was to get to know and interview a cross-section of Chinese people from all walks of life. It’s quite easy to get the opportunity to meet university students and other well-educated Chinese, but given the increasing amount of migrant workers in the past fifteen years, I took pains to meet some of them. While I still regret not getting the chance to meet and interview some construction workers or gardeners, I interviewed a number of “nannies” and even got to know numerous fuwuyuan (“service personnel” such as wait staff, maids, and so forth). Since I have kept in touch with several of them, I continue to learn from observing their lives and particular struggles.

These thoughts come to mind because of the visible differences among the Chinese. Unlike the U.S., where the migrant workers come from other countries, members of this “floating population” have left their homes and places of official registration (often in the Chinese countryside) to come to the cities to work hard and perhaps send money home. Given the vast differences in income across China, migrants are easily discernable due to their sometimes shorter height (from more meager diet), tanned skin (from exposure to the elements), and most of all, their different dialects. In comparison, more affluent Chinese are noticeably paler (white skin is considered more beautiful), better dressed, and taller from their better diet (ample amounts of protein in particular). Taller, better looking migrants can find work as guards or wait staff, while many others end up working the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. Together, they often face prejudice and discrimination. They also are a key part of the Olympics effort as grounds and construction crews (see photo of Olympic workers on their lunch break).

As I was walking around my current neighborhood, I caught a glimpse of maybe eight to ten men crammed into squalid conditions in a small room in a hutong. In this hot and humid air, they were in resting on metal bunks in this concrete room lit by a bare light bulb. Their clothes are worn and dirty. It’s a reminder that while they have left their homes to seek their fortune in the big city, they also are subject to harsh conditions as they almost certainly have not registered with the police here. It’s a tradeoff that many are willing to face.

In contrast, more affluent and younger Beijingers are interested in wearing the latest fashions, and unlike even twenty years ago, are really into “public displays of affection.” I must admit to feeling a bit shocked at times, having remembered how life used to be in 1990. One of my high school students got in a fair amount of trouble for dancing with a member of the opposite sex for all of ten seconds—a teacher caught sight of them and that was that. Now I sometimes am tempted to hose down a couple if they’re in my face getting all cutesy on the subway!

Like young Americans, there also is a lot of text messaging and chatting on cell phones—but it may come as a surprise that Chinese consumers seem to get the newest styles before Americans. Being old enough to remember the bricks that used to be cell phones, I also have been amused for several years to see that the young Chinese have been weighing down their tiny cell phones with little dangles and toys.

August 4, 2008: Foreigners in Beijing: As the days count down, I have started to see more and more internationals around. (I prefer the term “internationals” to “foreigners” or the legalistic term, “aliens,” since these latter terms put the Other at a distance, deemphasizing our common humanity.) My neighborhood seems to be attracting more adventurous travelers rather than those who prefer four- and five-star hotels. Many internationals seem less than friendly, not acknowledging one another, let alone the Chinese. Some of this behavior is adaptive since Chinese do not acknowledge one another either unless the other person is known. At the same time, however, sometimes I almost think that internationals in China don’t like to acknowledge one another because the other person serves as a reminder that their own presence in China is less unique, but that’s just a hunch.

While in general, international visitors are treated with great respect and interest, there are some notable exceptions. One is lining up, or what the British call the “queue.” Both on buses and subways, people push past people trying to get off so that they may get a seat. The queue is a problem anytime there is a wait. If there aren’t physical barriers to usher people in forming an orderly line, people begin to appear at one’s side and somehow ease in front of you. I have learned to thwart this line-jumping by pushing any bag I’m holding to one side and flinging out one leg on the other side (what I call the “Chinese stance”—standing people often rest one foot by putting it far to one side). I continue to prevent others from getting in front of me by making sudden, frequent shifts in stance while throwing the bag around slightly more than is necessary. I also keep my arms akimbo.

When it comes to the bus or subway, in the past I often would be offered a seat just because I was a foreign visitor and a female one at that. Big cities like Beijing, however, largely have gotten past the excitement upon seeing a foreigner. Now I must angle for a seat just like everyone else, and I lose out twice to two businessmen in their fifties.

Ever the social scientist, I enjoy seeing what happens if I am particularly polite in public, offering my seat to older people, pregnant women, or someone carrying a lot of packages. I like seeing how this kind of behavior is received, particularly overseas. Other people do this gesture too, but not as often in Beijing as in the past. Usually the person trying to secure the seat for the older person is a relative, not a stranger.

While I have feared seeing a lot of glitches due to the lack of English speakers, international visitors seem to be getting by one way or another. Many men seem to have a Chinese companion to help them—a girlfriend often. This situation can be viewed as problematic since these sometimes incongruous pairs of fifty- or sixty-year old men with Chinese women decades their junior just underscores the stereotype that foreigners are out to get the local women. I often wince when I see these pairs because of the gendered political power imbalances they represent—unfortunately, the implications go beyond the private feelings of a man and woman for one another. Such couples are viewed as neo-colonial—one more example of the powerful male West coming in and taking advantage of the feminized beauty of the East.

This dynamic explains why I am uncomfortable to note the discreet stand in my hotel room with condoms and boxed spare pairs of female and male underwear. The items are charged much like with a mini-bar—the removal of any item will cause a charge to appear on one’s final bill. While many will view this display as modern and practical, it also indicates the view that foreign decadence must be accommodated. Why else would these products’ packages be so prominently displayed in English first and Chinese second?

 

August 5, 2008:Olympic venues: The Olympics are causing a huge jump in prices for everyone. I don’t know about the many area hostels, but even modest hotels such as mine are having astronomical price increases. My single hotel room has been ¥198 per day (roughly US$29), but it is shooting up to ¥796 (about US$117) a day instead. I have seen the wait staff preparing brand-new cushions partly embroidered with silk, but I’d want more than fancy cushions for that leap in price!

After days of waiting of sticky, oppressive weather, I know that I’ve run out of time to observe the main Olympic venues before the swarm of visitors descend. The day before when I visited nearby Houhai (pronounced “ho hi”), one of the most prominent bar and club spots, I saw a number of Russian and Swedish athletes and related officials wandering the streets. (I also noted the price for a Coke, for example, at one of the bars, ¥40 (almost US$6). It’s a particularly ridiculous price when one considers that a can of Coke only costs ¥2 (roughly US29¢) in a Chinese supermarket.) Anyway, the time is now for me to go.

I get as close as I can to the Olympic main venues by vehicle, then it’s time for a long, hot walk. Police and guards are everywhere given the terrorist threats, and they carry themselves tensely. I opt not to take what would have been some excellent photos because I don’t want to cause any misunderstanding. As it is, a policeman asks me to move along when I take a couple of quick photos of the Bird’s Nest from a bridge. Still I am able to snap a few photos of the many migrant workers still trying to prepare the grounds for their Olympic debut.

After wandering unknowingly into the international media section of the grounds, I start noticing I’m surrounded by news vans and media from many different countries. A “Today Show” van pulls in front of me. I start talking with a man who seems to need some translation help, but he says that he’s accompanied by a hired translator. We talk briefly and I learn that he’s a cameraman for NBC. He kindly offers to take my photo in front of the Olympic venues. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out well since the Olympic pagoda appears to be growing out of my head. Instead, the best photo of me (which isn’t saying a lot since I don’t think I’m fit to be seen on such a hot and humid day) was taken by a Chinese bystander in front of the Beijing National Aquatics Centre, better known as the Water Cube.

One issue that has come into my mind several times a day is whether Beijing truly is prepared for the Paralympics in September. Everything supposed to be handicapped-accessible, but I can’t fathom how. The subways particularly concern me. For years, there have been escalators that go up, but the only visible way to go down is via stairs. I noticed that one subway stop has an individual chair lift that can be used one at a time by handicapped patrons, but it still remains partly covered in plastic. I later notice a Chinese man in a wheelchair surrounded by volunteers and police on a subway platform. The only way to exit appears to be by staircases. I have never seen an elevator on the platforms.

In 1991, my mother was moved to tears by the sight of one Chinese man lifting another to get him from one place to another. For many years, that was the extent of “handicapped access”—even though Deng Xiaoping himself had a paraplegic son. A developing country has to contend with all sorts of problems of access and inequality. The Olympics and Paralympics, however, have provided the best opportunity ever to improve handicapped accessibility. I know that officials and workers will continue their full-time efforts to get everything in place as the Paralympics begin, and even will work during the Games themselves.

Even at a more superficial level, there are some remaining blind spots that members of the global elite will not comprehend. Going into some of the bathrooms in glitzy malls can be like going several decades back in time. There at least are individual stalls with doors, but no toilet paper or paper towels are provided—at least more places are providing soap. First-rate hotels are more reliable about providing these amenities. Still I know that while some internationals will be able to deal with these kinds of situations, many more will complain.

August 6, 2008: When the best laid-plans…Being a foreign guest: I like to consider myself an “old China hand,” but the limits of my knowledge become apparent many times with each visit to the country. There still are so many things I don’t know about China, and that will be the case for the rest of my life. On the one hand, I find that challenge exciting—I’ll never get bored studying China. At the same time, however, it means that there are occasions when even someone who has lived in China for years will be thrown for a loop. It’s like riding a roller-coaster that suddenly leaves the tracks, flying into open air. What will happen next is anyone’s guess.

The most difficult part for me of being a foreign guest, however, is getting myself into a sticky situation with nearly a complete lack of clarity about the conditions under which I am to be there. (Sometimes the questions even extend to the extremely basic issue of wondering where in the country I am!) If internationals don’t pay sufficient attention, such situations can arise from just about any encounter.

Chinese are eager to be hosts and relish the opportunity to have foreign guests in particular. Most of the time, their kindness touches me. Sometimes, however, an international can find him/herself feeling simply confused and overwhelmed by the experience. If the Chinese hosts are from an older generation and they haven’t had much previous contact with internationals, the situation can create a lot of intense pressure for those guests.

Of my closest friends, I am most likely to stay with those who have had a fair amount of experience with internationals. Doing so ensures a certain amount of time on my own—an essential to my own well being, but one that cannot be taken for granted in a culture which doesn’t have a word for “privacy.”

The other day, I found myself feeling trapped in a situation almost beyond my control. A friend of a friend wanted to meet me, so I agreed to see her. She had emailed me over the years and I’d responded a few times, but never had met her face-to-face. She mentioned in an email that she wanted me to meet her baby son, so I knew that I might be in for a visit to her home, which I assumed was nearby.

What I didn’t know is that she had bigger plans for me. For one, I wasn’t made aware until we were on our way that her home was about an hour away. I had just told some people upon leaving the coffeehouse that I’d be back that evening—something that displeased her. Furthermore, she kept trying to pressure me to tell my future hosts that I would be staying with her for my remaining week in Beijing. She claimed that we were “very good friends,” a label that bothered me since in my opinion we’d only just met.

Thus, I protested that I’d made these arrangements many weeks ago and couldn’t go back on my word. Then she got the idea that I’d be staying overnight with her instead. Since I had no warning of these plans, I quickly started to apply the brakes, stating that would be impossible since I had not made such arrangements. While I agreed to meet her family and share dinner with them, that was all that I was going to do, and I refused to budge on that point. As it turned out, I had a pleasant dinner with them, played and posed with the family and son, and then insisted on leaving in good time.

I usually find it quite helpful to see what Chinese friends think of the some of the more notable encounters I’ve experienced. It helps ground me in knowing such things as what is considered proper behavior and, moreover, when I might have been taken advantage of, so that I’ll be better prepared the next time. Upon hearing this tale, some older friends say that the young woman was guofen (pronounced “goo-oh fun,” with “goo-oh” spoken quickly) or “excessive” in her hospitality.

Even with close friends, I have found myself in many strange situations, particularly when an “excursion” is involved. Such trips to the countryside almost always are so unclear in terms of the conditions under which one will be—with implications for one’s personal safety far beyond matters of mere discomfort and awkwardness. The last time I went on such an excursion, I got thrown from a galloping horse into a brick wall, so I think my personal ban on such trips is well justified.

At the same time, however, there is another side to the story. I recall feeling insulted when a close friend grew impatient with me once, calling me (and by extension, all foreigners) a “big baby.” At the same time, he had a point. We internationals usually have been quite spoiled in comparison to most Chinese—we’re accustomed to having plenty of food, running water (both hot and cold), indoor plumbing, modern dentistry, relatively clean water, sanitation, and in the U.S. in particular, many educational opportunities.

Internationals also don’t always know how to achieve certain goals in everyday Chinese life. For example, when negotiating a deal, it’s best to have a Chinese friend help you. An international surely will be charged an exorbitant figure otherwise.

he “big baby” theme also comes from the fact that most Chinese try their utmost to provide luxurious conditions for their foreign guests. When I lived in China in 1990-91, I could take as many as two hot showers a day in the dorm, if I so wished. Mind you, the conditions were so “primitive” that American parents visiting their children shuddered at the sight of the bathrooms. Even so, we all knew that most Chinese only were allowed one shower a week at a public bathhouse. In 2002, I reminded a Mexican roommate at Beijing University (who had just taken a shower for 75 minutes) of the fact that the Chinese students still had to visit a bathhouse.

August 7, 2008: One day before the Opening Ceremony: I have already helped any number of Germans in particular as well as other Europeans, Americans, Canadians, and Australians. When in Olé, a supermarket in a classy mall, I assist a customer-service representative in helping two internationals. She practically beams when I tell her that I have come to Beijing to help the Olympics and tells me if I ever need any help myself, to come visit her at the store. Meanwhile, the two internationals, a German with a Kosovar German friend, tell me that they will be attending the opening ceremonies tomorrow and asked if I’d be there too. Too bad I won’t! All in all, I’ve been having great fun and while I take a while to navigate a map (not my best talent in any language), I think I have made a positive contribution thus far.

Later that day, I took the time to speak with someone particularly skeptical about these Olympics, a middle-aged man I’ve known since 2002. In the aftermath of Tiananmen Square in 1989, he was jailed for siding with the student protesters, and he remains an articulate critic of the regime. He now is a successful business man (as any number of former protesters), but never has lost his ability to size up China’s problems. Last year he informed me that the Olympics have been a boondoggle in terms of the money spent. Past Olympic cities have lost money from the Olympics. As a developing nation, can China afford to do so too?

He asks me if I’ve noticed that Beijing is nearly empty of Chinese people, which is true. A number of my friends are elsewhere in China, and as I mentioned before, many migrant workers simply have been forced to go home for the time being. He also talks about how “nervous” the Chinese leadership is, which also is correct. If any terrorist act occurs, heaven forbid, or on a far more minor level, any glitch occurs during the Opening Ceremony, much “face” will be lost for China.

As we were talking, my cell phone rang and I saw it was from my volunteer contact. She told me that her supervisor had agreed to my plan to volunteer for a few hours. As I hung up the phone, I was struck by how thrilled I was to have this opportunity! It was particularly striking given that I was in the middle of talking with a critic of the Olympics. After taking a moment to digest the information and figure out what to say about my animated phone conversation, I told my friend that half of me is a social scientist, and half of me is like Don Quixote! He laughed, even while weighing this new, puzzling information about me.

On my way back to my hosts’ home, the cab driver takes me past the central Olympic venues. They are spectacularly lit, especially the Water Cube all in blue. I feel lucky to catch a glimpse of it the day before the big opening. All in all, Beijing looks quite impressive at night with light displays rivaling those of any top city.

August 8, 2008: Volunteering: I awaited my new friend’s morning phone call with anticipation. She called around 11:45am and said that I should meet her at 1pm at Xizhimen (pronounced “shee-jer-mun” with “jer” using a hard “j” sound) subway station, which is about halfway across town from where I am. It’s a great location at which for me to volunteer, however, since I used to live close by in 2002-2003, and numerous internationals come to that particular station so I’ll be of use. So I get on my way immediately, grabbing a cab since time is short.

No matter where I am, I always think that one can learn a lot about local politics from cab drivers, so I usually get into a conversation with them. This one is a fifty-year old man who looks like he’s had a rough life, but he’s warm and effusive toward me, especially when I tell him I’m excited and a bit nervous about volunteering today. When I arrive at the subway line, he refuses to let me pay for the cab fare because I am helping China. I argue with him but he insists. It is quite a gesture.

I arrive, meet my contact, and she gives me an official shirt to wear. I’m greeted warmly by the supervisor and other volunteers, mostly university students and a nurse or two in case any visitors experience any health problems. We took photos together and started our shift.

It is a blazingly hot day, and is the case with as most Chinese, they are worried for me since I am sweating profusely. It’s one of the indignities I must face on a daily basis in China, and I just have to deal with it. Chinese friends and acquaintances usually mention the same key issues with me: First and most important, why is a forty-year old woman not married? (I have no good answer to that one!) Second, why am I sweating (chu han, pronounced “choo hahn”) so much—am I okay? My stock answers rotate a bit—I tell them that my family members all sweat in the heat and humidity, that my Norwegian ancestors come from the north! Anyway, I fan myself and get down to work.

While at first I’m quiet and just observe the others, praying to myself that I haven’t caused all this trouble only not to be of use. Before long, however, the other volunteers call on me whenever an international comes to the booth or merely passes by. As the time passes, I find myself soon helping some Americans, Poles, a huge group of Finnish, French, South Africans, and a frustrated French journalist.

The French journalist complains to me that he’s never seen an event organized the way this Olympics has been. He has reason to complain. He must go to an outlying area first thing the next morning, and the only travel information available is entirely in Chinese. No Olympics map that we have (and we have many different ones available) extends that far.

My contact insisted on accompanying me the entire time, taking photos of me while I volunteered, and then escorting me to the subway when our shift ended hours later. She waved goodbye to me with tears in her eyes. I was a bit surprised, but any international in China who tries generally to be a good sport will be warmly embraced.

asically, one could say that I achieved this goal via the “back door”—usually something that implies that money changed hands, but not in this case. My volunteer contact took it upon herself to help me, and pulled strings on my behalf. I had a feeling that this was the case, but didn’t know it for certain until I learned that she’d given me one of her own volunteer shirts.

 

August 9, 2008: Review of the Opening Ceremony: The 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony went far better than I expected, but I didn’t know until that evening that the China’s master filmmaker, Zhang Yimou (pronounced “jahng ee mo,” with “jahng” pronounced with a hard “j” sound) , was in charge of the festivities. While best known for his excellent small art-house films, his central role ensured that the festivities would be a classier enterprise. The ceremony was quite a spectacle with plenty of fireworks and gorgeous scenes, and avoided most of the aspects that I feared would not play well in Peoria. There were, of course, some of the standards we’ve come to expect from other Olympics: A levitating child, a lip-synching child singer, and an Olympic theme song ready to be played over and over.

I did wince when the Chinese and then the Olympic flag were carried by goose-stepping soldiers. Most Americans associate the image of goose-stepping soldiers with Nazi and Soviet troops—not a positive association! I am positive that went over like a lead balloon with Americans (including political observers and television critics alike). One of my Chinese friends studying in the U.S. was surprised to learn that this association would be made.

Once mounted on the flagpoles and then unfurled with a militaristic flourish, the flags flapped in the (fan-powered) breeze. I bet the powerful fans brought some relief to the fans in those stands by the flags, but the image created would seem strange and nationalistic in the eyes of outsiders (and dissidents).

I also note that the little children all are wearing pink lipstick, a standard even for school performances. It’s a bit more muted than the bright, shocking pinkish red that I recall my male and female students wearing in 1990, but the practice remains the same.

Meanwhile, the Chinese announcer for the Olympics is the same man who seems to have the market cornered on Chinese television and radio advertising. I don’t know how he manages it, because in my opinion his voice sounds a bit goofy, but if one listens carefully to Chinese television, his voice is dubbed in for nearly all males appearing on the ads.

I burst out laughing a couple of times when watching the coverage. Most of the times were because of the stark contrast between the cheering Chinese fans, who often were wearing red and yellow paint on their faces and waving the flag, and the Chinese leadership, an unsmiling, dour-looking lot. I still don’t know why Jiang Zemin has to wear such huge glasses. Only Premier Wen Jiabao smiled obligingly.

The other time was when the Chinese cameras panned in on a particular marcher in the Canadian delegation, “Da Shan” (pronounced “dah shahn”). Da Shan is the stage name of a Canadian, Mark Rowswell, who speaks flawless Mandarin and is well known in China for his routines. He also comes across as a particularly mild-mannered guy in glasses, so I nearly fell off my chair for the split second I thought, “Da Shan is a world-class athlete? In what sport?!” We all then realized he must be acting as official translator for the Canadian team.

Later I discussed the ceremony with Chinese, American, and other friends, and generally people thought it was quite good. One of my Chinese friends told me that her mother thought it wasn’t as joyous an exercise as other Olympic opening ceremonies.

Another friend thought about the expense in a developing nation of having all of those performers. Why did almost all of the acts have to be group precision performances? Others stated that since China is known for its huge population, the Opening Ceremony simply made use of its greatest resource.

The same friend also criticized the song “You and Me” on several counts. First, for its English name, reminding me that, when spoken, these words sound just like the Chinese words you which means “oil” and mi which means “rice.”She saw a dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony and wasn’t impressed by how the Chinese singer/composer was dressed.

Others were not as critical, including myself. I thought the song was much, much better than “One World, One Dream,” although it’s certain to be played ad nauseum in China. Having Sarah Brightman, the “popera” singer, was a nice touch. She is quite popular in China, although some friends not raised in China had not heard her music. One friend told me that, due to her operatic style, he couldn’t understand the words she was singing.

I met these friends at an easy-to-find location, the Friendship Store, after I got a bit lost trying to find them. This sizable store is the one-stop shopping place for foreigners to go to find all sorts of marked-up traditionally Chinese souvenirs, conveniently located next to an imported-goods grocery store and a Starbucks. As I wait for my friends, I see video monitors already playing highlights of the opening ceremony, with “You and Me” as the musical soundtrack. Meanwhile, internationals are shopping like it’s never gone out of style. Privately driven cars usher visitors from every continent, dropping them off and then picking them back up when their arms are full of official Olympic gifts. Ah, to be a member of the global elite!

I haven’t heard who is directing the Closing Ceremonies, so I still am thinking we might be seeing Jackie Chan and those boy bands! Jackie Chan shows up frequently on Chinese TV ads these days speaking in Mandarin although he’s from Hong Kong where Cantonese is the primary dialect. He’s prominently featured singing in an ad campaign Beijing huanying ni (pronounced “hoo-an ing nee,” with “hoo-an” spoken quickly) or “Beijing welcomes you.” Also I figure the “One World, One Dream” song will appear then. Be prepared!

August 10, 2008: Olympics Day 1

I was shocked to learn that an American and his wife were attacked at Gulou, the Drum and Bell Towers—particularly since I’d just been living in this area last week. It was a horrible event, and both Americans and Chinese were shocked by this news. At the same time, however, it reminds me that if the attack had taken place in the U.S., it’s far more likely that the assailant would have used a gun and the list of casualties would have been much longer.

After treated to a Chinese breakfast by my friend, we went to meet the most famous foreign Olympics volunteer, David Tool, who strongly resembles Sean Connery (hope you like the comparison, David!), and his lovely wife, Sharon. He was the second Olympic torch bearer in Beijing, ahead of such luminaries as Yao Ming, and was featured in Beijing’s official Xinhua news service and the official Beijing Olympics web page (see http://en.beijing2008.cn/volunteers/news/n214495211.shtml ). While I respectfully disagree with David’s assessment in the article that Beijing’s air is foggy rather smoggy—I grew up just a five-minute walk from Lake Michigan so we had to contend with intense fog at times—the glowing reception he gets from the Chinese here is merited in full. When first introduced, he relates to me that his parents are from Nebraska. He’s a kind, charismatic figure who has opted to live most of the year in China separated from the rest of his family, and who corralled a group of international volunteers to correct the English mistakes on signs in Beijing.

ny number of older Chinese people come up to me at the reception asking if I’m David’s wife and the love on their faces for David is apparent. I’m a bit taken aback inwardly because I’m embarrassed that I’m wearing a somewhat silly t-shirt of a panda doing tai chi and I didn’t know this event would be so big. Yet I am used just to having to go with the flow in China, so I soon am conversing clearly and politely in English and posing for photos. Soon I meet David’s wife, Sharon, just before she is introduced to the entire group and is given a big bouquet of flowers to welcome her. David changes into his Olympic torch bearer’s outfit and offers to pose for photos with all of us. He also states that people may pose alone with the torch if they like, but no one I see takes him up on it. They are so fond of David that they would rather pose with him and Sharon.