(originally posted August 22, 2008)
Friday August 22, 2008 Beijing, China 7:49 pm
Sardines and Smells
Lets see, so Wednesday morning I needed to go to the US Embassy to get more pages in my passport. I finally accomplished a long term goal of filling it up! After three hours of wandering, I finally found the Embassy. Attempting to take the public transport system in Beijing is not my favorite thing. NO ONE speaks English, so I have to rely on showing the bus person the name of the stop in Chinese and let them tell me when to get off. I never thought I was claustrophobic, but being packed in like sardines with hundreds of other Chinese people is beginning to make me a little masochistic haha. And being cramped in and pushed and shoved and poked doesn’t only happen on the subway and buses, but in lines everywhere. It is definitely true that the concept of personal space is foreign to the Chinese mind. I am craving the nice open spaces of Texas! Then once I left the bus station I showed people on the street the address in Chinese and they just look at me like I just landed from the moon. Even if they did understand, since they know zero English I’m not sure if they’re directions would be very helpful anyway. I finally wandered around long enough until I found a Westerner who knew English, and they directed me to the British embassy, where someone finally could direct to the American Embassy, which was somewhat hidden. The brand new one that a bunch of Aggies helped to build doesn’t open until next month. It was good to hear American English again. In all my travels it was my first time to visit a US Embassy. I was actually pretty surprised because there were a lot of Chinese people working there, and seemingly pretty low key security. I only saw one Marine.
Also, another note about being cramped in with hundreds of Chinese is the smells. I have already discovered at least a dozen new smells that I did not know existed before. And none of them were pleasant. Many of the taxis have a strange odor, but I’m sure I will get used to it eventually.
I also had my first experience with the state run media today. There is an English daily newspaper published here in Beijing (it costs 1.5 RMB or 22 cents), and there was an article in it today really thrashing the West’s reporting on the bad air quality of Beijing for the Olympics. It was quite sarcastic suggesting that if the air was as bad as all the Westerners claimed it was, that athletes would be keeling over dead in the middle of their events. He blatantly said that the experiments that Western journalists did on the air were useless because they already made up their minds about the results.
Wednesday afternoon I was walking to a Starbucks to check email and journal when I was stopped by a strangely outgoing and friendly Chinese girl. It turns out she was trying to sell me some of her artwork so she could pay for her school. The art was actually quite stunning, and I felt only slightly bad for refusing. I ended up falling asleep at Starbucks. Then I headed off to meet up with my roommate (who I sold my extra track and field ticket to) to the Bird’s Nest for that nights track and field events. The stadium truly is stunning. It and the Water Cube are both so much more beautiful in person than on TV. That night we saw heats of the Men’s 800m, the Women’s Hammer Throw final (where a massive Chinese woman won silver), the Women’s 400m hurdles heats, Men’s 110m hurdle semis, Men’s Pole Vault qualifying, and the Big Kahuna the Mens 200m Final. The Pole Vault was certainly exciting to watch (aided greatly by the $6 binoculars I bought outside the stadium). But Usain Bolt stole the show again by smashing the world record and winning by over half a second. The Americans had a good showing with silver and bronze. There were several Jamaicans sitting in front of us who went nuts when Bolt won. It was surreal to be there and see a world record like that, then see the replay on TV the next day and be able to say “I was there!”.
Thursday morning I slept in and went off in search of some Olympic souvenirs. I found the official flagship store, and had and even crazier experience of being buffeted by waves of Chinese flowing in and out of this shop. I did end up getting a few things, but I have never seen a more inefficient system for consumers. Not only did you have to pick out your item, get a ticket from the employee, then go wait in line to pay, get another ticket, and return to get your item, but the cashiers had no concept of customer satisfaction. I guess capitalism is still pretty new to them. Despite lines of dozens of people long, the cashiers made no apparent effort to be speedy, and would turn to chat to each other while checking people out. It was quite frustrating, as in similar situations in the States, people get things moving pretty quickly. It was like the opposite experience to the one I had in McDonalds that I mentioned in my last post. I had similar frustrations with Chinese workers doing ticket and security checks at venues and subway stations. They make no attempt to speed things up even when thousands of people are waiting in line, and take their merry time. But I guess I shouldn’t complain as the venues have been safe.
Thursday night I met up with the Canadian family (who I happen to sit next to at the triathlon) whose son was competing in the modern pentathlon. They got me a free ticket, and helped explain the sport to me as we watched the last two of five events, the equestrian and running. They son Joshua Riker-Fox placed 24th out of 36 I believe. Still a good finish as it was his first Olympics. It was moving to watch how exciting and nervous his parents were.
Today I just relaxed and wandered around town with some Brits from the hostel. We walked through a small food market, where you can buy crickets, silk worms, and seahorses on a stick. Yes, none of that was a typo. I did not try any, as my previous cricket experience was less than satisfactory. The Brits tried the crickets, (which were actually quite large, so they must be a different species or something than the ones I had) and they said that they weren’t too bad. Also on the menu here is chicken and duck heart, as well as some other organ (our best guess was kidney or liver), all served on a stick. It made me miss home food.
Another cultural note on the Chinese pride. All of the talk in the Western press about how this Olympics is a huge boost for Chinese national pride is not overstated. It is so true. The Chinese are stoked that they are beating the US in gold medals. (I know we are winning in overall medals, but here every tally is ranked by gold medals so that China is on top) I even had one Chinese guy ask me with a smirk on his face if I knew how many gold medals the US had, just so he good quickly remind me of how many more China had. On the more subtle side (or maybe not)… Nike put up large displays of mannequins wearing Chinese Olympic uniforms doing different sports in the one of the large, high end touristy malls here. I walked by it three times before I noticed that there are three sets of track and field athletes with a Chinese mannequin positioned slightly ahead of a mannequin wearing a USA uniform. I wonder if this was Nike’s idea or the Chinese government, but I found it quite noteworthy. (see photo)