Monday, August 11, 2008

Firsthand View: China's Olympic Grand Opening

This is a guest post by Evan Sussenbach, my best friend and a fellow Chinaphile. We've been to the Middle Country four times together, and we've each gone separately once this year. Evan recently returned from a two-week trip to whitewashed, Olympic-crazed Beijing. Though not inside the National Stadium to witness the flashy opening ceremonies, Evan roamed the streets of the exuberant capital city as it ushered in the Games. Here, Evan lends four years worth of perspective to his description of China's "grand opening" to the world.

In my time I have been to some pretty spectacular openings. A few years back, some friends and the male members of my family sat outside Office Max in frigid, sleeting temperatures for the birth of XBox360 into the video game world. I have been to (though I haven't actually stayed all night) a Chick-fil-A grand opening, where karaoke and overly safe and fun disc jockeys dominate the night. And I have now been on the first fast train from Beijing to Tianjin, a commute advertised as lasting 38 minutes, although in reality it took only 25. We timed it.

But by the time I finish this paragraph, the literature will have been updated
and republished to correct this numerical error, and by the time I finish this
letter, there will probably be a faster fast train that will have opened from
Beiijing to the airport, that will get passengers there approximately minus-three
minutes after they have left the station.

That is because I think I am witnessing the largest grand opening in the
history of the world, the opening of Beijing and China - the forbidden "Middle
Country" - to the West. I was handed a map at the airport the other day by
seven friendly, Olympic t-shirt-clad teenagers with Olympic venues, road
names and famous sites. It is already obsolete. My 2003 China guidebook by
Lonely Planet might as well have been published in the 19th century for all the new
changes in prices, how to get places and relevant information.

When I was going to pick up tickets for the fast train to Tianjin, I got lost on
two separate cab rides because neither taxi driver knew where the new train
station was. Buildings are going up around Tiananmen Square at such a fast
rate that every time I go there, crowds gather to see a new hutong-style
shopping mall or Olympic garden piece and anticipate what will be behind the
next set of concealing poster board and barbed wire.

The Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven have been completely repainted.
Every historic site has the Olympic motto - "One World, One Dream" - plastered
next to the entrance and the Beijing running man emblem at each historic

Perhaps the funniest new thing is the rise of the Fu Wa. Imagine Beanie
Babies gone universal or Izzy (the Atlanta 1996 Olympic mascot) multiplied five times, and you have an idea of the Fu Wa--five very cute, very overhyped creatures (that all look like pandas to me) that have taken Beijing by storm. They are in cartoons, storefronts, Olympic ads, and at the sites, holding lacrosse sticks and riding equestrian horses. They are actually supposed to be representative of four noble animals - the fish, the swallow, the Chinese antelope, and the panda - with the fifth one being symbolic of the torch itself. Their names are Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, and Nini. When just the first syllable of each name is taken, it says "Beijing Huanying Ni," or Beijing Welcomes You.

Beijing is certainly doing a good job welcoming me. On publicly run
commercials, government officials are telling the Chinese how to be nice to
foreigners. Taxi drivers are being made to wear white collared shirts and ties.
People are advised not to roll up their wife beaters, keeping their tanned bellies
within their shirts. As I was in a cab to the Tianjin train station, I was given an
English lesson over the cab's radio. "How are you?' "Today is a nice day"
"Welcome to Tianjin."

I am in Beijing for one more day before I go back to Tianjin for the US-Japan
men's soccer game. I have never felt more like an American outsider in a foreign
country as I am here. "Jiayou Meiguo" (Let's go America) said my Chinese friend
Leah today, who went on to explain that she will root for any country
against Japan.

I, like you, will probably be watching the Opening Games on TV, and that will
probably be the official grand opening of China to the world. But this week
leading up to the games has been a delight to experience a world so different
from America getting a face-lift, manners instruction, and a world-class
transportation system to show off "the Jing" to the world.

Note on times: This is adapted from an e-mail written a few days before the opening ceremonies.

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