Monday, August 11, 2008

Thoughts on the Beijing Olympics

It has been fascinating to watch this year's Beijing Olympics so far - not only the games themselves, but the spectacular opening ceremony and the media run-up about what it is like in modern China today.

Whatever you may think about China politically, it will always have a warm spot personally in both my heart and my family's history. Not long after China first took its first tentative steps toward the West with ping-pong diplomacy and Richard Nixon's visit over a quarter century ago, my late father was part of one of the first US scientific delegations to China, and soon afterward I took a sabbatic from my software job to teach at a Chinese university as part of World Bank development project.

As someone who grew up during the Cold War hearing about the evils of Communism, I went behind the Iron Curtain with a mix of excitement and trepidation - after all, this was a country that sent many academics off to forced labor during the Cultural Revolution, and still denounced my homeland as a bunch of imperialists - and the trepidation part didn't get any better my first morning in Beijing (Peking back then), flinging back the drapes of my hotel room and seeing a massive sea of people in identical "Mao suits" commuting to work on their bicycles.

At the same time, it was tremendously exciting to be part of what I felt was a wave of history. To go in the first place, we had to undergo a lengthy approval process from both governments and study State Department briefing materials. And to stay there, particularly as a visiting professor, I had to show a great deal of respect for a country that was very different from our own. Except for the occasional faint BBC broadcast on my shortwave radio, it was an immersion in a totally different culture.

This trip was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and it reaffirmed the obvious but often unappreciated fact that people are people everywhere. Our hosts could not have been more gracious, people came up to us frequently to get to know us and practice their English (even at times grasping at my clothes to see what I wore), and we could not step on a bus without every Chinese soldier jumping to his feet and insisting that Colleen take his seat. Most important, I got to know a great many Chinese as warm, welcoming people who cared about us at a personal level.

My sabbatic was a flurry of lectures, meetings, impromptu tourism, and a different way of life. For example, we were packed off in tour vans every Wednesday because power was shut off at the university, our laundry was laid out to dry on a grass courtyard by old Chinese ladies, and one afternoon I even watched brand new IBM PCs being loaded off a horse-drawn cart. But what I will remember most were the people who treated us like old friends, and were as curious about us as we were about them.

Perhaps my fondest memory was my "Elvis Presley" lecture. Every morning they taped my classes, and played Western elevator music on the cassette recorder beforehand thinking it would make me feel at home. One day I decided to show them what real American music was like, and brought a cassette of Heartbreak Hotel. As I explained the lyrics and the vagaries of American romance gone bad, everyone burst out laughing, particularly as I described Elvis and wiggled my hips to demonstrate.

Afterward they wanted a tape of my music, and I agreed on one condition - that they give me a tape of their favorite music in return. What I got was a tape of the sweetest, most poignant Chinese opera I have ever heard, with the admonition that "whenever you listen to this, to always remember your friends in China." Today this music, and memory, still brings a lump to my throat.

Nowadays as I watch the Olympics, I barely recognize a country that now has five-star hotels, gourmet food, and a growing middle class that drives cars, buys houses, and uses their credit cards like we do. A country that is now one of the largest markets for McDonalds and Buicks. A country whose energy and talents, in my mind, transcend whatever geopolitics are talked about on television. And above all, a country with many people I consider friends. I wish them a great Games.

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