The Olympics are over, and America has turned its attention to the Democratic and Republican conventions as well as Hurricane Gustav. I am also now back in Dallas, and it is great to be home. Although, I still haven’t written about my last few weeks in Beijing. I definitely had a grand goodbye.

ben_2049-sm.jpgOpening ceremony excitement

I didn’t score tickets to the opening ceremony, but I had a memorable and very comfortable experience. It was incredibly humid that night, so instead of heading outdoors to one of the many viewing pavilions across the city or to the Bird Nest itself, I was in Beijing’s newest sports bar – in fact, it opened about thirty minutes before the opening ceremony started.

It was a great place to be because CCTV, China’s state-owned television company, was there filming the watching party; also in the venue that night were some NBA coaches watching the game. That just goes to show how hard it was to get tickets for the ceremony if there were NBA coaches at a bar and not on the Olympic Green itself.

Nonetheless the energy there was just as electric as at the Bird Nest, and it was an amazing feeling being only a few miles away from focal point of the world – an estimated 4 billion tuned in to watch the opening ceremony! When the parade of nations began, everyone in the bar cheered for every country. There were people from several different nations, so it was great to be surrounded by a diverse crowd.

I was afraid of what would happen when the American athletes came out, but everyone cheered just as loud for them as for any other country, except for China, who got a standing ovation. However, when the cameras panned to a picture of President Bush, the reception for him was not the same; regardless it was great to see other nations offering up their support for our athletes.

Beijing during the Olympics

The mood of the city constantly changes, and once the Olympics started there was a great energy everywhere. Beijing was at its best, and the city was flooded with athletes and spectators from around the world. For example, I went to the major knockoff market near school (it also happens to be the biggest one for tourists) and saw about 10 nations’ athletes wandering around the stalls looking for deals on everything from watches to cameras. That kind of encounter became commonplace over the next few weeks, and it was a great experience.

Another example of this global encounter happened on one of the major bar streets; there were a bunch of Brazilians outside one of the usual hangouts, and they had brought along their guitar and drums and started an impromptu party in the street. People from all different nations were joining in and just having a great time.

Besides the seemingly ubiquitous revelry, traffic and other aspects of Beijing life were admittedly different, but still as convenient as ever. Well, that’s if you stayed away from the major tourist sites and Tiananmen Square. I did not dare go to these usual places because they were swarmed with tourists. But since Beijing is a huge, huge city I managed to avoid most of the really congested areas. We also learned on weekends to head out a bit earlier before major night spots became really crowded.

What was also great about the Olympic period was that reporters were everywhere. I had several friends that got on NBC, CCTV, and other media outlets from France to Australia. There were 20,000 plus journalists who came to Beijing for the Olympics, and since we live in the downtown area, it was almost harder to not have someone snap your picture.

ben_2129-sm.jpgThe Olympic matches

I went to a few matches that included Boxing and Beach Volleyball, and for the most part the events themselves were great and had a really good production value to them. There were cheerleaders and music breaks perfectly placed between competitions. What was also interesting about the matches were the number of EMPTY seats – most of the events did sell out, but the problem was that the Chinese only wanted to see Chinese athletes compete.

Additionally, since an overwhelming majority of the tickets went to the Chinese, the flow of spectators at events was interesting to watch. For example, at the beginning of a set of beach volleyball matches, the arena was absolutely full, but after the Chinese team competed the stands cleared out even though there were two more matches left to go. I quickly learned that for the most part the Chinese did not really care about the sport they were seeing as much as they did about seeing their country’s athletes compete. (Except for diving and a few others, of course.)

That’s great and all for the patriotic side of things, but it’s definitely a shame that the seats went wasted for others that might have stayed the whole set to see other countries play.

The end of my time in Beijing

It was really hard to come home, but at the same time I was ready for it. My time at Associated Colleges in China (ACC) was great and so rewarding, but I definitely needed a break from the same intense schedule every day. Our graduation ceremony was fun, and we had a nice Beijing duck dinner with our teachers afterward. Although, I didn’t stay up all night like I did at the end of the first semester – I had too much to do that next day and then head back to Dallas the day after that.

In any case, my last night in Beijing was really sad because it finally sunk in that I was leaving. On my last night I came back from a night out with some of my classmates and realized that this was the last time I would be making this trek back to the dorm.

As I looked out the window I saw the CCTV tower looming in the distance and the lights from the Chaoyang district all around me. Despite school wearing me out, I definitely decided then and there that I would be coming back to Beijing. The city grew on me despite my initial apprehensions, and there are so many quirks to this city that make it special and characteristically different from any other place I have been.

I have seen Beijing go through a lot in the past eight months, and I have to say that I changed with it. I know that when I come back the city will have changed momentously from when I left, but that’s why I love it: Beijing and the rest of China are experiencing living history. It’s not as static as what you would see in Europe; there are so many changes occurring here at every level of society that are unheard of during any other period of history. What makes these changes even more amazing is China’s history and its turbulent experience stepping into modernity. They haven’t come full circle yet, and their future stability and success are far from guaranteed, but so far they have done a lot to prove they can adapt.

Lastly, my time in Beijing was a humbling one. I met so many amazing people that made me realize how much harder I can push myself. The Chinese have a work ethic and a sense of determination that is unseen in the West, and my teachers at ACC definitely gave us a huge dose of it.

Additionally, it was amazing to see into the lives of real Beijingers and talk to them about their experiences – they have seen so much change in the last thirty years, and to be with them and live with them as they experience the Olympics was unforgettable. I really had the opportunity to personally witness a great time in modern history.

It was great to live in Beijing while reading about how it was reported back home. For the most part the journalists did a great job of providing a snapshot of China, but I have to say that people shouldn’t accept that snapshot as the whole picture.

What I have come to learn about China is that there is always more than what meets the eye – it’s impossible to pigeonhole it. Additionally, those who try to pin China as one way or the other will face a harsh reality when their theory or perception crumbles before them. Between the sheer amount of people, the government, and its history, China is a complicated place. It’s great because that means there will always be more to learn and discover. It’s also bad because that means there are elements to China that are unthinkable by most.

Regardless, I urge everyone to see China for themselves; they will discover that some of the cliches are true and then they will discover their own China – for the good and the bad.

One thing that I hope everyone can discover is how warm the Chinese are – for the most part I had a really great time meeting new people. From my teachers to my friends I made in Beijing, they were really a hallmark to my experience and made it as great as it was.