“We went out to swim in the big pond, but ended up finding ourselves. The ocean did not drawn us, just made us wiser and better”. This was a bit of sentimentality I shared with an undergraduate classmate who also came to the United States for graduate school and spent years trying to “make it” out here. The same sentiment parallels the Chinese experience with the Olympics in particular and their transactions with the world in general, since Deng Xiaoping opened the window on the world (allowing the flies to come in, along with some good stuff).
Two recent Western comments on the Chinese preparation for the Beijing Olympics caught my eye. 1. According to James Fallows, the Chinese authorities’ tightening of control over the situation was defeating their own purpose of impressing their audience – the West, especially its media. 2. Meanwhile, Richard Spencer at the Daily Times started to wonder aloud over his fish pond in his Hutong residence who the games’ intended audience really was. Could it be that the Olympics were designed as a reward for the hardworking Chinese, instead of a “coming out party” to entertain foreigners? My first reaction was Spencer had a more astute grasp on the Chinese psyche. Then I realized both comments could be right, but apply to different stages of the Chinese experience with the Olympics.
Should we separate the official (ccp) and popular feelings toward the Olympics in the discussion? From my observation, the portion of the Chinese population that has cared about and paid attention to the Olympics largely shares the official sentiments. One can say that the official propaganda machine has successfully manipulated the public opinion. The rest of the population does not care about the games either way. My discussion of the evolution of the Chinese experiences with the games focuses on the officialdom and the caring/concerned/involved public.
From a historical perspective, when China acquired the privilege to host the games, it was under a different administration, one that focused on (obsessively) the outside world, or, rather, the West. (It was considered Okay for the Chinese president to go to Japan and piss off the neighbor). We had a president who sang opera, danced, recited poetry and Lincoln speeches, and groomed on camera at state banquets on his foreign visits. We had a flamboyant premier who went to the United States expressly to “sooth their feelings”, just before the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. (He was subsequently known as “soothing Zhu” among overseas Chinese students and scholars). These guys (like a pair of peacocks) really wanted to impress the west. Their vision of the game as a self-celebration party with foreigners (westerners) as adoring house guests spilled into the population and caught on.
When those guys were gone and the current administration took over, the philosophy of domestic governance and dealing with the outside, and the perceived significance of the Olympics, changed. The first change in the wind came in rumors that Wen Jiabao had concerns about the huge budget for building the Olympic venues. (There were a lot of talks about cutting back the scale of constructions.) I imagine that Hu and Wen had been lukewarm about the Olympics in particular and throwing parties to entertain foreigners in general all along. Of course at that point it was too late for them to get off the back of the tiger; the show must go on. Meanwhile, the exuberant feelings about the games continued to infest the Chinese population, and the feverish Chinese media. Not knowing what’s around the corner, the ordinary Zhangs and Wangs were still enthusiastically practicing greetings in English, polishing their manners and trying to kick their bad habits, at the urgent behest of the newspapers and TV talking heads.
Came 2008, a string of events inside and outside of China rudely changed the Chinese perspectives on the Olympics. First it was the Torch Relay in Europe, North America and Australia, and the way the Chinese torch bearers were treated by the locals in those places, quenched the Olympic fire in Chinese hearts (whatever it had stood for). The images of a wheelchair bound Jin Jing protecting the torch bearing the Chinese floating cloud patterns with her frail body in a remote foreign land, surrounded by seething thugs and hissing creeps, served as a wake up call, calling upon the Chinese to face the reality of the world they live in. Looking at those images on a laptop in America, I smiled with relief and an inner peace, for two reasons. First, the fantasy about welcoming the world to a come out party was finally smashed into pieces. Reality tastes sweeter than any fantasy. Second, the Chinese fighting spirit was stirred up, embodied in old girl Jin Jing. What a graceful Chinese fighter. This event and the Tibet incident along with its coverage in the Western media and their game-changing impact on the Chinese view on the Olympics and the world have received plenty analysis. So I skip.
The link between the two domestic disasters (the Chinese New Year Ice Storm and Sichuan earth quake) and the Chinese view on the Olympics has received insufficient attention, as far as I can tell. These disasters and the millions of Chinese crying out for help forced the nation to rethink its priorities. As a society, what are we about? What should we cherish? Is it so important to impress the foreigners, a lot of whom are as*h*les that just sh*t over everything? Intelligent Chinese started asking these questions during the ice storm, and the entire nation found the answer in the rescue efforts in the earth quake. The answer was found in the spontaneous rush to help the fellow Chinese in need, the citizens’ selfless contribution of money, labor and blood, as well as in the government’s swift and decisive responses.
The other day I saw a painting in the Museum, showing two naked White guys of advanced ages, one sitting and the other standing with his back bent over, forcing him to look at his feet. The poor guy had to bend over because he was carrying a huge globe on his back. The title of the painting was “Some Greek guy relieving another Greek guy of the globe”. So the bent over guy could not get rid of the weight on his back and the sitting guy liberated him. The Olympics and psychological burden of impressing the world had been oppressing the Chinese like the globe on the back. Now the globe is removed, by the nation’s responses to the earth quake, and the lessons learned in those responses. Taking care of your own is much more gratifying than impressing foreigners. It gives us a sense of sufficiency and completeness that no impressed foreigner can offer. These insights hit me hard in the face when I made my last trip back home. After years of competing in a foreign land, in other people’s culture, using their language, playing their game, according to their rules, there was such a relief when getting back to the place and people that had made me and shaped me from day one. At the human level, it’s your own folks, the family and everyone else, that really matter.
Going back to Richard Spencer’s question, are the Olympics really for the Chinese’s pleasure and enjoyment or for the world (foreigners, the West) to be impressed and entertained at the expense of the Chinese? Here is my humble opinion. The games have ultimately served as an educational experience for the Chinese. Now that chapter has been turned over and the Chinese have moved on. Before their due date, the Olympics are already outdated and belong to history’s dustbin. Do you sense the Olympic Closure among the Chinese? I certainly have a sense of closure.