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Scenes from Beijing: These will not be an ordinary Olympics


BEIJING -- Having recently arrived, I realize that some things defy translation: A sign by a towel rack near the outlet in my hotel bathroom ("Do not use for another use") convinced me to drip dry. When I picked up my phone's receiver, the rings led me to an answering machine on a number I had not called.

It's my second day in China, and I already know these will not be an ordinary Olympics. It's a land without a modern soul that is sprinting to show off a modern face, skipping chapters in an anthology of forced progress. I'm struck by how effusively polite people are trying to be, even when they are taking the long way around a simple problem. It will take a while to sort through the conflicting snapshots that a mere month can offer, but in little more than a day, these are some of the appetizers.

On the way from the airport, there was a sign about the low bridges we would soon pass under. The sign sported the English words: "Don't ride your vehicle too high," and featured a giant "X" through a depiction of a car with a giraffe popping out of the sunroof. Be warned, if you come to Beijing any time soon, leave your giraffe at home.

It's 90 degrees and I am struck by the women carrying umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun. Apparently, men only break out umbrellas for rain. The skies were blue on Sunday for what I'm told was the first time in weeks. Athletes in distance events have worried about excessive pollution, but I saw unmanned cranes along relatively lightly traveled roads, so most construction projects have been halted and the measures to clear the notoriously grimy air may be working.

On our route from the airport was a spanking new building called the Automobile Decoration Center. I'm reminded of Pico Iyer's description of Beijing 15 years ago as a land infested with bicycles, and yet now cars are everywhere, with drivers who even heed traffic lights from time to time. If the nose of the fender can beat your knee to the designated spot, you're better off ignoring the light in your favor, because the guy behind the fender won't bother to see it and will aim straight for the kneecaps.

Further along, some women broke out the umbrellas as they left the Salon for Facial Care, Hair Dressing, Foot Massage and Health Care. They all seemed to be smiling.

We also passed the Research Center for Tibetan History and Culture, surely an international home of what one Latin colleague called historica revisionista. As we reached the city center, the main roads seemed exceedingly green and manicured. Not until we turned on to side streets or I peaked between spanking new buildings did I spot the rusted facades behind all that green.

On the first day, the Main Press Center was a fortress patrolled by an army the size of Rhode Island. Men marched in files and stared with identical conviction at nothing in particular. Then they dispersed with alarming speed. I never saw them the rest of the day.

The radio in my hotel room took turns playing Oh! Susanna and Kenny G's Christmas hits. If it's 90 and muggy I may be dreaming of a White Christmas, too, but some tunes have a seasonal shelf life.

I was told people would not accept tips in China, though the rule did not apply to my taxi driver, nor the three people who insisted on bringing one bag apiece up to the hotel room. The waitperson at the wonderful local restaurant, however, heeded the custom of restraint, bowed and politely uttered the word sorry in its many iterations: "Sorry," "so sorry," "I'm too sorry for you," "Sorry, we cannot accept," and finally, "sorry, no."

In lieu of a tip, I told a translator that this was one of the tastiest meals I'd had in ages and as the sentiment passed, one person at a time, up to the manager, the depth of bowing seemed to increase.

The restaurants here are fabulous. Forget westernized Chinese food with names like Happy Family and Little Bit of Everything Soup. The scents and wafts co-mingle so elegantly with spices; it's worth a trip just for lunch, although it's hard to look at the tanks of swimming seafood that will soon be a la carte. Meat-and-potato types may balk at pickled intestine with lychee, but there are ample McDonald's around for the feint of palate.

On Monday morning I was struck by the conflicting scenes of tradition and change outside my window. A man who could have been 100 stood in a garden near a branch of Starbucks, leading a large group in traditional exercise and deep breathing, even with the bad air. Some searched for their morning chi; others opted for morning chai.

Street signs now include English and most people, including nearly everyone in a service-industry position, can speak a few words. Instruction by committee is common. If you ask directions from a helpful person in a blue uniform, be prepared for several people in a like uniform to take turns repeating the directions before you can actually put them into practice.

Before we left our hotel lobby this morning, we were asked to pass through a metal detector by the doorway in front of a shuttle bus that would take us to the main press center. We slipped our credentials through a bar scanner, placed our bags into a metal detector, emptied pockets, unlaced and relaced shoes and walked outside where we were met by a volunteer who told us, "You may wait inside and make a rest into the shop."

So we went back inside, waited five minutes for the bus in front of the security people who had just cased our shoes, then were told to repeat the procedure as the bus pulled in.

Since the bus wasn't ready to receive passengers once we went back outside, another volunteer, perhaps 16, sped out with a departure schedule and began reading it aloud. He showed me the top line of entries and seemed excited at his opportunity.

"If you arrive at this time," he said, "you must make at ten clock the departure for the main press center." Then he moved onto the next item on the spreadsheet. "Then it will stop at the next hotel at five from the hour and you will not disembark. Then at five past the hour, you will disembark while still on the bus for the main press center. You will arrive at the main press center at 15 from the hour if you choose this bus."

The guy seemed very pleased to have finished his exercise, almost as if he'd recited it in front of the class for a grade. I smiled and thanked him, but the bus driver fled into the hotel before I could move along.

"If you arrive at the next time," my new friend started to tell me, pointing excitedly at the start of the next timeline, "You must make at 11 o'clock the departure for the main press center."

We went through the instructions for 12, one, two. Maybe this was the poor kid who had to use up the blackboard writing 100 times that he wouldn't chew gum in class, but I didn't want to break his enthusiasm. Somewhere between the buses at seven and eight, the driver returned and the young volunteer excused himself.

Over the next three weeks, I'm sure the locals will run the gamut from helpful, to well-intentioned to deliberately restrictive, but certainly everyone will be earnest. Every native seems to want the Games to work and make sense. I can't help but wonder how that will translate.