I get that this year’s Olympic Games in Beijing are controversial. I get why, and I don’t disagree. So with a strange mix of delight and apprehension and excitement and nostalgia, I am watching the Opening Ceremonies tonight. I’m not much of a sports fan, but the Games in Beijing — they hold a lot of meaning for me, and I’ll be watching as much as I can.
In 2001, I left Beijing after a year of living, working and studying at the city’s teacher’s university. The day I left the International Olympic Committee announced that Beijing had won the right to host the 2008 games. And oh how far away 2008 seemed. Like a century away. I left the city so torn — vowing, knowing even, that I’d be back before the Games. I was, but only for two weeks, and that was six years ago.
It had been a dream of a year. I had learned so much about culture, relationships, communication, language, faith and myself. I was comfortable conversing in Chinese, but more than fluent in chopstick. I could read characters and made it a goal to learn new ones every day. I had found the places I loved most for walking and biking. I knew where to get the best gong bao ji ding (Kung-pao chicken – not to be compared with the spiceless goop served in most American Chinese restuarants) and fried apples and dumplings. I had great, dear Chinese friends who I had shared my culture with, and they had shared theirs with me. I had led my father and brother through the sights of Beijing. I had biked to Tiananmen with friends late at night, after the city was cool and silent. I can still hear the intonation of the subway lady’s voice: “Jiushuitan daole,” at the stop closest to my university. I had crushed on a boy and bonded with roommates. I eventually went my separate way from just about all these people, as my faith morphed into something as foreign as China, but I treasure those days with them. I hope they know that.
The last few weeks I had finished classes and was simply milking my last few days as a Beijinger. That summer Beijing had been in rare form. The Olympic hosting “competition” was in full swing. Dilapidated structures were covered and Olympic posters were everywhere. The central government had been doing everything possible to avoid the hot, muggy, smog of Beijing summer. They played God – seeding the clouds so that it would rain and clear away the matter that turned the skies a dusty, tannish grey. It was working then, apparently better than it is now.
I can’t imagine what the places I knew so well in Beijing look like today. I wonder if a visit would be emotionally overwhelming. Places get to me, more than people sometimes. If I went to my old apartments and found them torn down, the vendors gone, the little cafes long closed, I would mourn them. It’s almost ridiculous to think things hadn’t changed in that neighborhood. The Beijing skyline is a matter of cranes rising behind cranes rising in front of cranes. Everywhere you look, construction is a given.
But tonight, it’s Beijing’s turn to shine, and I can’t help feel proud, watching this ridiculous and amazing show of talent and culture and dance and beauty and technology. 2008 man-children doing tai-chi in formation, in unison, with beautiful and culturally stunning results. The drum opening… The directing by one of China’s great film-gods Zhang Yimou. What is not to love? I’m sure some Americans are afraid of China’s emerging prowess, but I am amazed and wonder at it. In a way I love it. I hate the human rights problems and the support of Sudan’s genocide, but I also hate the war in Iraq and any number of things I could mention that the Bush administration has done, so…. I don’t know.
I recently emptied a chest of memorabilia from my parents’ basement and found some of the promotional posters I had gotten my hands on that summer. There were bent and torn, but a flood of memories came back. I couldn’t believe they were in there… seven years….