Giant on the move
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.
But what has really surprised me is the way the atmosphere has changed. Not the smog, but the way the people of China have opened their arms and welcomed visitors from around the world.
For Italian weightlifter Giorgio de Luca, for example, doping is out of the question but coffee, cigarettes, and the occasional drink are all fine.
Visitors arriving bleary-eyed and bad-tempered to China after gruelling long-distance flights are encountering a veritable people’s army of astonishingly polite and disciplined volunteers who attend to our every whim and need.
When I got off the plane after a jetlag-inducing flight from East Africa, I found myself shepherded, as in a dream, from post-to-post by an array of smiling students. ‘This way for your Olympic fast-track channel, sir … your accreditation … your bus … your room … your complimentary umbrella.’ Some were already fluent in English, others shyly practising newly-learned phrases, crushed if I didn’t understand first time.