BEIJING — From time to time during these Games, we’re going to have a quartet of other Minnesotans chime in with their Olympic and Chinese observations.
I met three of our MinnPost bloggers at the University of Iowa last March. I was one of a group of veteran Olympic journalists who readied them for their first Olympic experience.
Nate Cooper, of Glenville, Erica Patterson, of Bloomington, and Beth Tuttle, of Minnetonka, are all working for the Olympic News Service, which is the official arm of the Beijing Organizing Committee. They work as reporters and, mostly, grab post-competition quotes from athletes.
The fourth, Ben Rasmus, of Edina, is pretty fluent in Chinese. I know this because we went to dinner the other night, took taxis and went shopping. I didn’t say a word, but it sure seemed as if the Chinese folks knew what Ben was saying.
We begin today with Rasmus and Cooper’s first offerings:
Ben Rasmus: Smiling campaign
“Sir, are you all right?” A slight man asked me in nervous but fluent English. I snapped out of my daydream daze while waiting for a subway car in Beijing.
“Yes, just fine,” I replied.
It was late in the evening, and jet lag and a full day of catching up with old acquaintances had no doubt taken a physical toll. I was wiped out and needed sleep. However, the man’s genuine concern and care in his question were touching. It was a surprising situation that has repeated itself in similar forms the past couple of days.
I lived in the capital from 2006 to 2007 and grew accustomed to — dare I say even enjoyed — Beiingers relatively loose use of courtesies. In a city that marched forward as fast as Beijing, there seemed little time for the use of please and thank you, or to wait in lines.
However, since landing back in the capital a little over a week ago, I have been stunned by Olympic graciousness: A smiling man offering an open seat on a crowded public bus. The countless fresh-faced Olympic volunteers sporting matching blue outfits, roaming the streets ready to assist with any inquiry. The usually gruff Beijing taxi drivers greeting customers with a well-rehearsed and friendly “Welcome to Beijing!” And, alas, even subway passengers waiting for others to exit and board.
No doubt such changes did not happen overnight. Ever since the Olympics were awarded to Beijing in 2002, the government launched a citywide “campaign of civilization and improvement.” Countless campaigns and slogans have been hatched: Seat Giving Day, anti-spitting and littering campaigns and smiling campaigns.
The onslaught of new civilities, combined with civic and Olympic pride, is no doubt pleasant. The sooty and soupy air has cleared, the streets are litter-free and are accompanied by hundreds of thousands new flowers and shrubs. However, I can’t help but wonder when the Olympic flame moves onto its next location if I will have to shoulder my way on and off the subway once again.
Benjamin Rasmus, 24, originally from Edina, majored in Chinese studies and communication at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. Benjamin moved to Beijing in 2006 where he lived for one year studying Chinese and teaching English. He is now back in Beijing to take part in the Olympic action. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nate Cooper: Ch-ch-ch-changes
I’ve been asked the question probably a dozen times in the past six weeks what I’m doing here. When I left from the United States on June 21 for Beijing, I had apprehensions about how I was going to fill 10 weeks without a schedule after Day Seven.
There’s been a fair share of dabbling on the Internet, which I’ve found to be pleasantly unrestricted (for the most part) from my dorm room. Yet the most interesting time-killer thus far has been watching Beijing apply the final layer of its Olympic makeup.
I’ve watched a favorite foreigner hangout shut down “for repairs,” and another forced to stop its live music and put a halt to the deafening music I’m accustomed to. Markets that were once havens for foreigners looking for cheap, quality knockoffs of expensive American goods now post erratic hours and are subject to closure at the government’s will.
Through most of July, guests and residents here passed through the lobby with ease, 24 hours a day. Now, guards at the front gate, who once seemed like figureheads, stop taxis and pedestrians from entering the gate after 11 p.m. Residents won’t get an outsider in after that time, either.
Guards stationed at subway security points — which were ornaments at first — no longer offer an option of boarding the train without sending your belongings through a scanner.
Freshly planted trees, bicycles and oodles of compact cars were formerly the sights on my 40-minute commute to work. Now, the trees are outlined with flowerbeds, the number of cars has been halved and the number of bicycles has perhaps doubled.
Along the entire route to the wrestling venue, which isn’t exactly the Olympic epicenter, guards, who weren’t in position three weeks ago, are now stationed at every corner and about every 100 yards in between.
Between our painfully long breaks during the work day, my supervisors are busy organizing mock situations throughout the venue. During the staged press conference, an athlete began by holding up a “Free Tibet” sign. A mock journalist stood immediately, and holding a newspaper shouted something in Chinese, and then was promptly escorted out of the room.
Although some Chinese policies seem senseless to Americans, it’s easy to fall into the rut of looking past some stuff that doesn’t quite add up. Instead of asking why, I now find myself letting it go, chalking up the oddity as authentically Chinese.
But these cosmetic changes, major and minuscule, show exactly how calculated the government has been in every move leading up to the most significant international event China has ever held.
Nathan Cooper is a volunteer flashquote reporter for the Olympic News Service and is a 21-year-old University of Iowa senior from Glenville, majoring in journalism and political science. He has reported sports, government and business for the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune, the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the UI’s student-produced Daily Iowan. He can be reached at email@example.com.