Giant on the move
A pleasant surprise in Beijing
I’d expected the worst when I got to Beijing three weeks ago. I remember what it was like in another Communist country — East Germany with its suppressed and scared people coupled with deplorable service and shoddy quality everywhere you turned.
That’s roughly what I had in mind for China, although I knew Beijing itself would certainly be a more prosperous and modern place than East Germany, and with a bit of window dressing for the Olympics.
But China has turned out to be a lot different than I imagined. Even if it is perhaps a facade for the multitudes of foreign journalists like me getting their first taste of China, the single-most overwhelming aspect for me has been the wholehearted friendliness of the people.
I’ve been looking everywhere for that proverbial half-empty glass and the fly in my soup ever since I got here but instead have found mostly kind, helpful and friendly Chinese people who have been doing perfect 10-score back-flips to keep me and the fraternity of curmudgeon-like journalist colleagues from Seattle to Saigon happy.
I’m sure they’ve been drilled on how to be friendly and helpful to Lao Wai (foreigners) like me. The volunteers in Athens were all pretty friendly too, until the last day of the Olympics when they started ignoring my questions and the smiles disappeared. Here they haven’t stopped smiling or being helpful yet.
It doesn’t mean there haven’t been angry, tense, frustrating moments. And no one here can forget the ostracised and punished dissidents in China (you wonder why free speech runs into limits in such a powerful and proud country with so much going for it).
I’ve also had a few minor run-ins with rather inflexible local officials. But there is still no escaping the kindness, smiles and friendliness of the Chinese people everywhere you turn. It’s contagious.
Just before an interview with an athlete the other day, the battery on my tape recorder died. I turned to a local Chinese volunteer to ask if she knew where I might be able to buy, find or borrow a new one. “Sorry, no.” No worries, I told her. I’ll manage.
A few minutes later she ran over with new batteries. It was unreal. She had made it her personal mission to search the venue for a battery for me. Could anything like that happen in London in 2012?
My favourite line of the Olympics has been this one from a 22-year-old student walking on Tiananmen Square just before the opening ceremony. It sums it all up best: “My heart is bursting with excitement about the Games. I want the people to see what is special about China.”
PHOTO: Volunteers stand near targets with arrows during the men’s archery individual ranking round at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 9, 2008. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich