This post first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 30, 2008 - I came to Beijing July 5 to work at the Olympics as one of 300 English-speaking volunteers, all of whom are students of journalism. My job is in the office of the Agence-France Presse in the Olympic Village's press center.
At the press center, I work with Chinese volunteers who are university students or recently graduated. They are curious -- about me, what my blonde hair feels like, what my life in the U.S. is like, and what I think about China. They are also hard-working and helpful to the extreme.
When my camera broke, a Chinese volunteer I'd just met left work early to take me to the electronics store to help me buy a new one. When our volunteer manager heard I needed a new camera, she told my co-worker that he could skip his next five-hour shift to help me out.
Many of my Chinese colleagues have work ethics that would amaze most American students. One just finished her first year of college and is already studying for the GMAT so she can go to business school in the States. Another freshman studies the vocabulary section of her GRE prep book every night so she can go to graduate school at Stanford. I am pretty sure, based on our conversations, that her vocabulary is larger than mine -- and I just finished journalism school. My manager leaves at the end of August to study comparative literature at Harvard on a fellowship.
Of course, these volunteers are among the brightest, which is why they are the face of China during the Olympics. Still, they are ambitious and are taking opportunities to better their education and lives -- opportunities not available to college students in Beijing a generation ago. Their positive energy rubs off on me, energy I need to withstand some of the more frustrating aspects of living in Beijing.
For example, the air quality this past week has been particularly bad. A cloud of thick grey smog envelopes the city most days. The pollution, combined with humidity and heat, makes enjoying the outdoors nearly impossible. Beijing has many beautiful parks and temples, but it's hard to enjoy them. After being outdoors for more than 30 minutes, I'm covered in perspiration and grime - even if I've been sitting still on a park bench. Forget running or outdoor sports. The stifling heat is unlike anything I've experienced, even after living in St. Louis for 18 years and North Carolina for four.
However, if you can see through the smog, the contrasts between ancient and modern in Beijing are fascinating. Hutongs, narrow alleys built in the 13th century, stand next to modern 21st-century skyscrapers. A sleek Audi zooms by an elderly, wrinkled and suntanned man on his rusty bicycle. Street vendors sell lamb on a stick for three yuan in front of five-star restaurants.
Some of the changes take away from China's historical wonders: For example, a Starbucks sits at one of the entrance to Great Wall, another near the Forbidden City. McDonald's and KFCs are everywhere you look. Craving pizza? Try Pizza Hut, Domino's, or, if you want free delivery, Papa John's.
Alongside these pockets of the city that show China's openness to globalization are reminders of the government's watchful eye. Police and soldiers guard the gate of the university and the doors to our hotel building. Last night as two friends and I were enjoying dinner at a European-style outdoor restaurant in the cosmopolitan Sanlitun neighborhood, our conversation was abruptly stopped as a line of soldiers with stern facial expressions marched down the sidewalk two by two.
For my last month here, I'm trying to experience China to the fullest. I'm eating traditional Chinese meals for nine yuan. I'm braving the weather and exploring the hutongs, parks and temples. I know Target, Schnucks, and Panera Bread Co. will be waiting for me when I get back, although, to be honest, I don't miss them a bit.