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On passports, badminton, Beijing

BEIJING -- It was a simple question with no simple answer: What did I think about China?

The question came on my 17th day in Beijing while standing in front of an administrative police building on Anding Men Dong Da Street, a three-story nondescript building where Beijingers applied for travel visas, and foreigners attempted to resolve difficulties. In a matter of minutes I would find myself at a desk with the following words written above it: PROBLEM RESOLUTION.

Indeed, I had a problem.

I lost my passport in Beijing.

It was the final stop on an extended lost in translation tour that included the American Embassy in Beijing (an oasis of organization and solace), multiple visits to the Olympic accreditation office (again, solace), and a roadside police station a couple of miles away from the Olympic Green. At the station I sat in a small room surrounded by five police officials, none of whom spoke English, all of whom seemed slightly amused by my misfortune. Had I stepped away from the situation, I might have smiled. But I wasn't smiling. It is an awful feeling to lose your identity, even one on paper. Plus, there were my own preconceived notion about authority in China. For 20 minutes the only thing separating me and my worst xenophobic fears was a 95-pound woman, about as tall as Muggsy Bogues, whom SI had hired as a reporter and translator. Thankfully, she was calm. I was a wreck inside.

I have always loved covering the Olympics because it knocks me into an unfamiliar territory. It makes me humble, stupid and ignorant, often at the same time. Beijing amplified those feelings tenfold. My language skills were nonexistent, outside of a few travel terms. I then added to the usual stew of disorientation by not holding onto the most important document I had brought to Beijing. Perhaps one day I'll also tell my colleagues about the flight over from New York, when a doctor had to attend to me mid-flight. Not exactly a Travel Channel special.

Back to the question: It was asked by SI China reporter named Wang Xingying, to whom I am forever indebted. In my darkest passport hour, she guided me through the city like Magellan, navigating bureaucratic channels so I could get a replacement passport and travel visa. She allowed me to enjoy the final week of the Olympics, or at least perform my job effectively. She is my favorite person in this country.

What do I think about China?

I think I haven't seen enough of it. I've seen a scrubbed-fresh Beijing where I know an underbelly obviously exists. I've seen an incredibly friendly group of volunteers -- especially those under 25 -- but I wonder what their life is like away from the Olympic bubble. The closest I think I came to discovering part of China's soul was attending the gold medal matches of both badminton and table tennis. Both finals were seen by more people than reside in the U.S. It was here where I discovered China's Lin Dan, the bad boy of badminton, a game I previously associated with aristocrats. He was deft and athletic -- a revelation, at least for me. After Lin won his gold medal -- his celebration included tossing his racket and both sneakers into the crowd -- he returned to the court for the medal ceremony. Rather than watch the inevitable march of Chinese flags to the top of the sky, I turned around to look at the crowd. There stood a boy of about 17, singing the words to the People's Republic of China's national anthem -- Yiyongjun Jinxingqu (The March of the Volunteers). He was singing so hard that I thought he might collapse. Those in his row sung with the same force, as did the kids in the crowd at Peking University's Gymnasium after China's Ma Lin won the men's singles table tennis title.

What do I think about China?

I think I have no idea. But it is an interesting place, a global tiger filled with energetic young people primed to take over the world. If I come back one day -- and I hope I do -- I'll make sure of one thing: I'll be wearing my passport around my neck.