Two years ago we were in Beijing and other parts of China, touring, soaking up culture and feeling like big, fat, pasty Westerners. We also were there to complete our family and make some kind of lasting connection. While we were taking away one of its daughters, we also left behind a part of ourselves.
So it has been with great interest that we approached the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing. We root for the United States. We root for China. We can’t help it.
In spite of all the charges of fireworks fakery and lip-syncing deception that have come out since the spectacular opening ceremony last week in Beijing, we’ve decided to hold onto the first breathtaking memory of watching it together.
We admired its grand scale, feats of athletic prowess and incredibly creative interpretations of Chinese history through dance and art. So many times we stared at the TV and asked: “How did they do that?” Most of all, we loved watching our Girl from the East point with glee at the TV and shout “China! China!”
Ultimately, she is too young to watch the games or gain anything through the special features. Her impression of China is firmly rooted in the bouquets of pyrotechnics coloring the night sky and the elaborately costumed characters.
Our visit to China took us to many tourist attractions, but it also led us down streets not highlighted in any official network feature — which seem to want to put a high polish on everything to keep international relations warm and fuzzy.
We walked away with many pieces of China. Some beautiful, some confusing, others haunting. You can’t walk through Tiananmen Square without thinking of the student protesters. You can’t walk among a sea of nearly homogenous people and not understand what it’s like to be a minority. You also can’t really know a place unless you’ve been there. Seeing the Great Wall on TV is no match for scaling its dizzying steps.
We realize there are many pieces to the China puzzle. We don’t know if all of our impressions are accurate, or if we’ve passed them through our American filter too many times. Will the Olympic exposure help us and others better understand China? If nothing else, it has sparked many conversations and debates.
We feel commited to learning the language, to studying the history and culture. We befriend Chinese people. Anything to hang onto that cultural thread, no matter how thin.
Yet China remains far away and largely a mystery to us.
Here is a picture sent to me by a shopkeeper I met in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. Once a year I receive Chinese New Year greetings from “Tiffanie.” With a population of 4 million people, Nanchang is considered a small town by China standards. This image was taken during the Chinese New Year; it more closely depicts the China we saw. This picture is nearly the polar opposite of the BBC image at the top of this post. Both are pieces of China.