Farewell letter from China
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 2, 2008 - The Chinese are not afraid to point out minor shortcomings of the country and its presentation of the Olympics. But still, they voice overall pride in Beijing's Olympic effort.
Now that the flurry of media reports on the Olympics, the athletes, security issues and Beijing's pollution have subsided, and the huge numbers of foreigners have made the long voyage back to their respective countries, I've found time to reflect on the games and their effect on China and its people.
Being in Beijing during those two weeks, I found the Chinese people's excitement virtually impossible to miss -- from the "ooohs" and "aaahs" overheard while riding a public bus past the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, to the young children in their "Go China" headbands and "I Love China" T-shirts.
The excitement and pride were palpable. But what about their willingness to discuss -- openly and objectively -- the massive $40 billion effort put forth by China's leaders to prove to the world that the ancient country is now a global power?
"We do our very best to serve the people who've come to Beijing to see the games," said Olympic volunteer Zikang Ye in the final days of the Games. "We want to make everyone happy and feel the Olympic spirit.
"The Olympics is my son," he added. "It has disadvantages and advantages like a child, but we accept them and make the very best of what it is."
Ye said the elaborate opening ceremonies, which showcased elements of China's rich culture, such as the drummers and acrobats, were "very Chinese."
"It was not all space-age and modern like you have in America," he said, but a true representation of China's ancient civilization -- although "it could have been shorter."
Shui Yu, a 20-year old volunteer and Beijing native who attends university in Toronto, said she has been impressed by the modern facilities constructed for the Games. These state-of-the-art buildings are examples of the drastic changes in the city's landscape that have occurred in the past seven years since the city was awarded the games, she said.
The Beijing of this summer is not the same city that was awarded the games in 2001. Yu's parents' home in Beijing is surrounded by restaurants and shops now, but five years ago, none of these commercial hot spots existed, she said. Her story is similar to many Chinese who have watched the surrounding landscape change at incredible speed, thanks to rapid economic growth. In 2001, China's gross domestic product was $1.3 trillion; it is predicted to reach $3.6 trillion this year.
"People are very excited; the economy's been very good and allowed us this," she said. "But when the hutongs (or traditional buildings) are replaced by commercial buildings, it takes away from the strong tradition that China has."
Yu's parents pay $20,000 a year just for tuition at the Toronto university where Yu studies biology. So she has personally profited from the economic improvements by getting to study in the West. "Ten years ago most Chinese couldn't even afford to go abroad," she said. "But now it's so common, especially for university students."
But not all young Chinese saw the Olympics through rose-colored glasses.
Asked if he was proud of Beijing hosting the games, volunteer Weng Xinyu, a German major who is moving to Germany to study industrial design, was quick to point out that several of the most impressive Olympic buildings were designed by foreigners. The Bird's Nest was designed by Swiss architects, the Water Cube by Australians, and Capital Airport's Terminal 3 by a Brit.
"Yes I'm proud," he said. "But it wasn't just the Chinese who did all of this."
His statement is at odds with the nationalistic propaganda of the state. In fact, the state-run news agency Xinhua published a July 27 article that asserted that the venues were "mainly" designed by Chinese. How many Chinese reading that article are convinced by it -- and how many are skeptical like Xinyu?
Nevertheless, the Chinese in Beijing seemed genuinely happy to host the Olympics and even prouder of how things played out this August.
From writing slogans on shaved heads, to painting their faces red to volunteering for hours on end, the Chinese displayed their pride during these Olympics. They are proud of their country's open economy, proud of their athletes winning the most gold medals and always proud of China's rich culture and history.
Wei Guo, a 20-year-old university student with long thick chocolate-colored hair and a sweet smile, expressed the sentiments of a majority of the 70,000 ever-present, energetic volunteers: "Because our economy has developed so much, we can do this all. I'm very proud."
The Chinese people's energy and passion for the Games and their country even inspired me. Coming to the Games, I was excited about the Olympics and relatively curious about China, but by the time I boarded my plane home, I had developed what will be a life-long passion for the Olympics and China. The Beijing Games inspired me with two new personal goals: finding ways to Vancouver in 2010 and London in 2012, and learning everything possible about a rising China.
Rachel Kurowski arrived in Beijing on July 5 to work at the Olympics as one of 300 English-speaking volunteers, all students of journalism. Her job was with Agence-France Presse in the Olympic Village's press center. There, Kurowski worked with Chinese volunteers who are also university students. They are curious about her -- as she is about them.