Summer Olympics to Fall Paralympics 2008:
Understanding China even for this bicultural Cantonese American, is more difficult than learning its official language. Even now, 2-1/2 years later, all I can offer is the transliterated descriptions and impressions. I am not sure that what I’m “seeing” is actually what is. After all, in Buddhist psychological understanding, I am a conditioned sentient being, i.e., I see with American eyes and I interpret with an American mind.
As the process of translating one language into another, I am still in the first of two fundamental steps - transliteration, where the putative translator simply laces together the closest equivalent words right under the original. For example:
你 最近 怎么 老是 迟到？
You recently why always late-arrive?
Transliteration is the safety-check that the translator does in fact literally understand each word separately – in this case from Chinese into English – before actually translating: “Recently, you’re always late.” Or much later, with robust confidence, from translation into writing, i.e., – “Why oh why, these past two months, when your presence has been so critical, that you are always –and I mean without fail, late, late, and late again!?!”
So much more daunting is the American writer’s interpretation of China, for a very different and often self-assured culture, America. This is further complicated because China keeps shape-shifting.
Thus, I can choose to transliterate, but I cannot say I am translating, or even telling the truth. I am not an expert and thus, herewith my first transliterate report on China.
Fittingly, this piece opens in the living room of a translator couple, friends and the Chinese translators of my memoir, The Eighth Promise. We work on translating both Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow.
Monday, 8/11/08 -- My first day in Beijing, I’m staying with my translators, the young couple of Kuilan Liu, Professor at the prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University and her husband, Dellay, a fellow at the equally prestigious Chinese Social Academy of Beijing. We alternate between channel surfing Olympic events and translation work.
Kuilan had earlier emailed me a long list of obscure or unknown references (to Chinese anyway) from my memoir, queries like:
- My chapter title “The Toisan Rules,” riffs off a pre-Feminist book freshly attracting young career women seeking marriage entitled “The Rules”
- Molly’s “Big Hair” is her bountiful, coiffed, and long crown.
- “Three hots and a cot” means having a stable home.
- Dick & Jane with Rex & Skippy are from first grade primers modeling the 1950s suburban nuclear family of 2 kids, 2 pets, 2 adults, and 2 car garages.
For lunch, we slurp Kuilan’s Henan noodles with sun-dried black-eye long beans and quaff Tsingtao beer while watching the Olympics. The term “TV Meals” invades their lexicon
Dellay most recently translated the Nobel Prize winning Turkish writer, Orphan Parmuk, whom he accompanied during Parmuk’s 2007 China tour. His current project, a Martin Amis novel, “Time’s Arrow” (1991), is written in reverse chronology and ending – or is it starting? – during World War II.
Dellay requests help with a few abstruse references, and in between badminton and basketball broadcasts, I throw down linguistically:
- “Dug, Dug” says the lady in the Pharmacy instead of “Good, Good.” Amis is contrasting her guttural and lower class dialect against standard linguistics. She’s not referring to the act of “digging.”
- “[F]lares” vs. “twin ball gown effect” of bell-bottoms – from the fashionable Hippie and Carnaby Street attire of the 1960s, flare pants did just that – flare out above the shoe like the prow of a Greek warship, but bell bottoms pants bloomed out from the knees wide and round, in effect like twin ball gowns.
- “Odilo quit his pact of reptiles and, with enthusiasm, seeks his herds of friends: their strength in musky numbers and their heat of hide and stall.” To succeed as a doctor in a concentration camp, the character Odilo becomes a cold-blooded reptile, able only to uncover his humanity in the evening warmth of his neighborhood bar.
We probe twenty or so sections before calling it a day.
And now, with a nod to Martin Amis’ Times Arrow, a narrative shot backwards in time, herewith my recent impressions of China in reverse chronological order, from September 11th, 2008 to the Olympics Opening ceremony, evening of August 8th, 2008.
SEPTEMBER 11TH, 2008 – THE PARALYMPICS IS IN FULL SWING
On the field of the Birds Nest Stadium:
Opening Paralympics Ceremony: A one-legged ballerina in a wheelchair, a survivor of the Sichuan earthquake, dances with China’s prima ballerina on a giant stage in the middle of the Birds Nest.
A Kenyan, Henry Kripono Kira laps an opponent just before crossing the finish line of the 75-lap race. A new world record.
As the Chinese crowd cheers him on, a European racer collapses yards short of the finish line, get ups, wobbles, collapses again, and crawls across the finish line. He lays there. A portly, middle-age Chinese official gently helps him up, embraces him like a protective mother, as racers shoot past his back, moving him to safety.
Jeff Skiba, an American, wearing a springy, ski-like prosthetic lower legs, leaps an incredibly long-distance across the sand pit.
Olenka Serlenka, positions the stump of her right leg against a haystack like prop. She sends her javelin soaring across the grass field of the Birds Nest.
In the Water Cube: One-arm women race lap after lap in the 200 mm relay against two-arm competitors. A one-arm butterfly swimmer wins a silver.
Back to Birds Nest: In a 200 meter run, blind runners, wear large nightshades as they race tethered wrist-to-wrist to sighted runners.
At Beijing University's Basketball Courts: In Wheel Chair Basketball, a player blindsides another player’s wheelchair. FOUL! The American women’s team leads the Bahrain team, 65-36.
SEPTEMBER 10TH – NATIONAL TEACHERS DAY
It’s National Teacher’s Day in China – as reverential as Mothers Day in America. On my second day on-the-job, a student hands me a card of appreciation, puzzlingly apologizing that it’s all in Chinese.
In the mid-August humidity, I’m conducting an “English Corner” on the planked courtyard of the Teachers Building. A giant anchor repainted Golden Gate Bridge Orange looms over the adjacent pond. Students may practice standard American with me, or just chat, so I announced in my classes. Completely non-mandatory, between 5 and 7 every Wednesday.
At 4:45 PM, a strutting posse of five males descend upon me; then another four or five straggle in, then a group of three females, and finally two more females.
It must be curiosity at this “foreign teacher” who is not white like the typical foreign teacher, and yet speaks native American English; who looks Chinese like the rest of “us,” and yet doesn’t speak Mandarin. Brave New Global World.
The tall, athletic leader of the first pack, Daniel (they all select English names to make it easy on Foreigners), attired in fashionable black t-shirt and jeans, asks “Do you celebrate Teacher’s Day in America? Are teachers respected in America.”
Well, let’s start with a light question, shall we? No, unfortunately, we don’t. I explain the differences between suburban and inner city schools, private and public schools, and the informality of American college classes in contrast with the mandatory attendance at Chinese universities.
At some point, Daniel apologetically announces the posse has to leave for a basketball game. “Do you play basketball?” he asks. Yes, but that was more back in the day as my aging knees can’t take a real game anymore.
Scarlett stays behind until she is practically the last one. The evening light is still strong at 6:30 PM. She says she is a bit nervous because she’s competing in a local CCTV English speech context next week. She could use some help as she hopes to advance to the nationals.
I ask her to practice her speech, standing before my wheelie overnight bag like a lectern. Her speech is at an impressive level of language. But Scarlet pronounces her “th’s” like “z’s.”
“Like Germans often do.” I say.
We practice eye contact, the use of pauses, and her “th” pronunciation. A third year student suggests smiling more. Then he and Scarlett heatedly debate the efficacy of the source book for her speech. Scarlett sharply corrects him on the author and edition.
It’s close to 7 PM, dark, and I’m tired. The hazy orange half-moon of the Autumn Moon Festival hangs low above the four-story teachers’ buildings.
All along the 45-minute shuttle ride home to Shanghai, clots of people stand or sit watching giant, public TV screens showcasing the Paralympics in ubiquitous shopping mall plazas and parks. In between, it’s the endless gaudy serial scenes people against an ever changing backdrop of dim and bright streets, of neon-lit buildings, of vendors with wares sprawled on sidewalks, and once a modern yogurt ice cream store looking cool inside, but the sign spells it as “Yonghurt.”
Chinglish rules in China!!!
We pass Honqiao Park, near my apartment, with its Ian Pei mini-pyramids sticking up through terraced lawn amphitheater seating. Public dancers populate the grounds - mostly women line-dancing in familiar choreography, flinging their right arms into the air, shouting “Kuai, kuai” – or fast, fast – and suddenly spinning front and back, shifting right and left. Another group 2-steps away to music booming from the 2-1/2 -foot speaker-CD player combo unit melded onto the back of a bicycle. In a further part of the park, couples waltz, barely perceptible in the dark.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 31 – BLUE DRAGON LITERARY SALON AND DC’S
At Glamour Bar on the Bund, a popular expat watering hole along the Huangpo River with a view of the Oriental Pearl Tower and its neighbors, two of the world’s tallest buildings, Madeleine Thien, is reading from her book, “Certainty,” spanning Indonesia, Vancouver, and the Netherlands. Her partner, Rawi Hage a Lebanese Canadian writer born and raised in war-torn Beirut, reads from his latest book, “Cockroach.” They’re the first foreign writers-in-residence of the Shanghai Writers Association.
Madeleine is but one of many Diaspora Chinese returning to China.
There are five French Chinese in my Mandarin class, born in and still living in France, where their families had fled to, steps ahead of the Khmer Rouge.
Evan Lim is second-generation Johannesburg, South Africa. She chuckles that “We were just reclassified as ‘Black,’” to qualify for reparations in the form of affirmative action.
Amelie hails from Indonesia where, until recently, Chinese Indonesians couldn’t study Chinese.
With our limited Mandarin, our common tongue is English, as I thought it would be. This reminds me that once in Tahiti, I could only communicate with a local Hakka Tahitian in my broken French.
AUGUST 29TH, MEDICAID IN CHINA
A scratch on my left shin has become infected. My foreign teachers’ liaison, Zhang Zhe Sheng (“…call me John…”) taxis me to a nearby hospital, Shanghai No. 1 Hospital, Songjiang New Town branch, where out new suburban campus is located.
The reception area is an airy, naturally lit, uncrowded atrium. I’m a foreigner with a US Passport, a barely legal alien on a 6 months visiting scholar/teacher visa. The clerk checks my US Passport and Visa, enters me into the local medical system database, and issues me a resident medical insurance card.
We check into my doctor’s clinic across the way. There’s around 25 people waiting, but my name is called in under seven minutes. Dr. Chee Chao Shey looks at the infection, touches a few spots and asks whether it hurts anywhere. No, just itches like crazy. He orders an ultrasound to detect whether the infection may have moved underneath surface area.
The ultrasound technician runs his blunt-nose instrument over and around my left shin. Inexplicably, he runs it over my right shin as well. Diagnosis: a surface infection only. Doctor Chee indicates I may continue to use my OTC Hydrochloride cream, or he can prescribe a more quickly acting medicine. I opt for the prescription, which takes mere minutes to fulfill – at another window after paying a fee again. Pay as you Go
Total Cost: 81.60 RMB or $ 11.66 USD. Total Hospital Elapse Time: under 45 minutes.
Second shock – no privacy. Patients stand around listening during the exam.
MONDAY, AUGUST 20TH, 2 ELDERLY WOMEN PROTESTORS GIVEN SUSPENDED SENTENCE FOR REEDUCATION IN A LABOR CAMP
The Wall Street Journal On-line Edition reports: “Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, went to Chinese police five times between Aug. 5 and 18 to seek approval to protest against officials who evicted them from their homes in 2001…On the fourth visit, the women were told that they had been ordered to serve time for "disturbing the public order" until July 29, 2009… If they violated various provisions or regulations…they could be sent to a labor camp.
“China said it would allow protests in three parks during the Olympic Games. [P]olice had received 77 applications, but none has been approved.”
A educated and fairly liberal friend opines doubts about the full range of American rights for China. “I just want a stable, safe life and not so much political instability.” Another modern who studied in Europe and travels abroad for his work, states, “China has to find it’s own way. We have time.”
In 2007, there were over 250 public protests throughout China daily.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 19TH, OLYMPIC GREEN
The Birds Nest glows like a magic fireplace in the night, exuding warm reds and oranges underneath the cool metallic bands that seem to hold down this improbable edifice. The Olympic torch flames high up against the clear, evening sky.
Strands of laser lights stream over the Olympic Green Park from dragon-headed Pangu Plaza, a series of buildings forming a Great Wall flank along the south of the Green. As the LED lights shift, waver, hover, and then interweave with the glow from the Birds Nest, I wonder, “Is this what the Aurora Borealis must feel like?”
The Water Cube with its river stone cellular exterior resembles a rectangle caterpillar designed to cross the galaxies. Its exudes moody purples, turns magenta, then green to blue, and then several tones of swirling reds and oranges as if adapting to the changing harshness of outer space traverses.
The Lius and I have just seen China win three Golds: Women’s uneven bars, men’s rings, and surprisingly, women’s trampoline. America competed mightily, but the night went to China. Poland took the gold in the men’s vault.
Kuilan notices that when Americans are doing well, we Chinese Americans fervently wave the stars and stripes and that when Chinese are doing well, we wildly wave the Chinese flag. She goodheartedly thinks of it as having the better of two worlds. Yes, it feels that way today, but in times past, it’s often being between a rock and a hard place.
We stroll towards the calliope sounds of western classical music. Kids dash amidst columnar jets of water shooting high into the air, then swirling like dervishes, the waning and misting, and finally dropping down to stillness – before starting all over again. I take my Godson Dusty’s hand, we get wet as he squeals in greatest delight.
THE CAPITOL MUSEUM – AUGUST 12TH
Today, American swimmer Michael Phelps wins another Gold in swimming.
Bushes and tree branches have been shaped into dragons, horses, phoenixes, and all matter of green sculpture. It’s simply beautiful. There she is - the Capitol Museum is like a Roman temple sitting astride a long beige stone stairway. Its well-lit atrium interior is blessed with bountiful exhibition spaces, easily decipherable, and accessible by escalators, elevators, and stairs.
In one corner, a giant, dark stone, antique wine cup connects all five stories. From the outside, the cup breaks out through the upper corner of the building, like the brother of the Olympic flame holder at Birds Nest.
The lines are long today for the main exhibit – of China’s most treasured artifacts from museums throughout China. Inside the exhibition hall, people click freely away with cameras – only flash photography is prohibited. After too much jostling, Kuilan and I pull out for lunch. Still, we saw it all and lingered when we could.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 17TH – AN UNUSUAL DISCO INTERIOR
SONG BAR is multilevel and cavernous, like a disco tucked against the alcove of a giant sand dune in the Dead Quarter of the Saudi Arabian dessert. Stairs undulate up from the ground floor dance floor into an upper seating area all along the walls. Sand color columns, wide, strong but yet ephemeral, curve into stalagmite and stalactite hourglass figures. Our party is tucked away into a box seat like party area. Behind our tables, a leather covered platform with huge pillows.
Two attractive Chinese women dance up a storm. A blond woman in a Go-Go dress shimmies away with them, her tresses flying out, her body bouncing every which way. A few men attempt to join them, but the women shake them off.
The DJ steps out with his small Njembe drum and slaps loose some nice, rhythms before retreating behind his mix table.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 16TH, WANGFUJIN
Little Dragon Buns bursting with steaming hot soup. Deep-fried black scorpions on bamboo skewers. Snake soup with mushrooms. Grilled pork dumplings. I’m at Wangfujing, the food street with outdoor eateries and beer cafes opened 24/7/365.
At the sixth floor of the nearby mall, we join rapt, screaming, groaning, adoring fans as the Chinese basketball team beat a European team on a suspended flat-screen whose speakers broadcast to the crowds hanging off the railings of all six floors. Next to us, a Cantonese family screams obscenities at a tough break. We Cantonese know our obscenities.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15TH, AFRICANS IN BEIJING
The room is large, dark, a kind of light show hurly-gurlies over the DJ, and the floor throbs with hundreds of bodies. I catch up with Quincy Jones sitting in the next private booth with Chris Tucker and their entourage of young Chinese, and compliment him on the gorgeous medallions of dragons Chinese silk jacket he wore at the Academy Awards a couple of years back when Ennio Morricone won the Oscar for lifetime achievement awards. “Yeah, my daughter was there!” and “Some folks asked why I was wearing pajamas to the Awards.” Q mentioned ruefully about those detractors.
“Ignorant.” We conclude and wish each other a great time at the Olympics.
Later, two women, sveltely attired in kitchy-goo disco dresses and 9” heels, whom I assume to be African Americans, situate themselves in front of our Crocs Party booth. They’re from the African island nation of Cape Verde, and in the BJ studying Mandarin for a year. One of them shouts that Cape Verde has the largest number of Chinese in Africa. “No one is helping Africa but China,” she thunders unequivocally. “Still, we denied China’s request for military basing rights.” As if underscoring the non-colonial nature of the partnership and thus their ability to “Just Say No” to a global power.
Chris Tucker is busting some “Rush Hour” boogie moves for his adoring entourage who are snapping photos and videos with their cell phones. Suddenly “Billy Jean” starts to pick the beat up a notch or two.
The Dance Gods vortex in and the Cape Verdeans and I end up in the same dance energy circle and these young and vivacious African women from Cape Verde dig that I am a worshipper of the Great God Boogie and the energy is flowing through me like I am the rubber man passing the hot ball of shaking to and through them and all around and everyone else is feeling it and coming closer to cop a feel of our energy. The three of us are rising and swaying and yeah, shimmying and shaking. A third Cape Verdan joins us and soon our entire section is rocking and swaying.
Someone says “I never dreamed I’d be dancing to Billy Jean with Quincy Jones sitting in the next booth.”
The sun is breaking over another Blue Sky day in Beijing when I finally cab home.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 14th, LIUKU NASTIA VS. SHAWN JOHNSON
So if it got down to a final selection between Shawn and Nastia, whose face would grace the Wheaties box, the Breakfast of Champions?
Today, Nastia Liukin wins the Gold in Women’s Gymnastic All-around, with 63.325 points, a mere six-tenths ahead of Shawn Johnson, the reigning world champion.
During the medal ceremony, I mouth the words of the Star Spangle Banner along with Nastia. Tears stream slowly along both sides of her nose. I choke, too, feel a drop or two form in my eyes.
The mostly Chinese audience loudly cheers Nastia’s Gold Medal victory, despite local favorite Yang Yilin’s disappointing Bronze. Maybe because the Olympics are going smoothly and China is ahead again in the Gold Medal count (although all my local friends apologetically say, “But America has the most medals.”) and maybe because the spirit of the Olympics have seized hold – Jaio You! Go for it – may the best win!
Days later, the Chinese crowds cheer for Shawn Johnson when she - finally - wins her first Gold on the balance beam, her final competition. Her every-smiling pluckiness and jiao you spirit had won the crowds over.
Shawn’s coach is Beijing Born and Des Moines based Laing Chow, a former Chinese team gymnast. He treats Shawn’s injuries with Chinese medicine, insists she has a life outside the gym, and returned to China for the first time in fourteen years as her Olympic coach. Shawn has the classic All-American look, but inside she’s global!
Nastia is the daughter of Russian immigrants, former Olympic competitors for the Soviet Union. In this global age, Nationalism is losing its edge. Jiao You!
Smiling Chinese and American gymnasts hug each other, sweetly sharing the medal platform. And who selected those svelte, colorful hairpins that are so perfectly dropped into the Chinese women gymnast’s perfectly pulled back hair? Never a pin or a hair out-of-place! Jiao You!
SUNDAY – AUGUST 10TH = REGISTERING WITH POLICE
It’s a hard rain late afternoon. China’s Guo Wenjun wins Olympic Gold in women’s 20-meter air pistol. Russia scores silver and Georgia the bronze. As they compete, Russia and Georgia are in a real shooting war over the Ossetia breakaway region in Georgia.
I’m dreading the requirement to register me as a visitor at the local police station. Security and all during the Olympics. It’s my American druthers. Kuilan and Dellay accompany me since I’m staying in their home. A friendly policewoman “registers” me. She carefully checks my passport and types out my walking around form, but seems mainly interested in chatting up Kuilan about their precocious son, Dusty. I’m muttering under my breath, no visitor staying in a private home would have to register in an American city hosting the Olympic games.
AUGUST 9TH, DAY TRAIN TO BEIJING
My Shanghai-Beijing train is new, clean, and my seat provides ample legroom.
Parents and grandparents coo and sing and chat with babies, kids, ‘tweens, and teens. Two young parents in front of me incessantly hug, rock, and sweet-talk their two little girls all the way to Beijing.
A girl who looks around four prances about ballerina-like in black pants dress with matching leggings that end in a pair of ruby red slippers with flower petals decoration in front of the instep. She sneaks peaks at the shard of ice that floats in the melting liquid of my water bottle as I sip and then at me, shyly looking away when I catch her with a smile.
My seatmate unwraps a KFC chicken fried steak sandwich and a corncob. I eat steamed buns purchased hot this morning from my local street vendor.
We’ve transformed this 14-car train into one very long living room, one moving at 160 kilometers per hour
After a 10-hour ride, we pull into the new Beijing South Railway Station whose ceiling vaults high into the sky like the interior of an Emperor’s burial tomb. Dellay picks me up and we drive to his home. Beijing’s freeway flows surprisingly freely for a Saturday night. Underpasses glow with decorative red led lights, like a series of urban art installation. Newly landscaped flowerbeds glow lustrously.
Each skyscraper seems freshly scrubbed, their exterior lights highlighting their priciest features: layered wedding cake tops of neo-classical Chinese or Greco-Roman building or oddly geometric and beguiling teckie, modern art sculptures delicately hanging off their penthouses like pill-box hats off a society maven’s big do.
The spinning lights of parked police cars with lights flash at regular intervals as their driver stand outside the car
Beijing’s cityscape is very pretty tonight --- and securely guarded.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 8TH, THE OPENING CEREMONIES
Guodong, my local Shanghai friend and I hook up with an expat group to watch the Opening Ceremonies.
The crowd is bright, loquacious, and acerbic, robustly indulging the preferred expat sport of puffing every little Chinese glitch into a systemic condemnation. But the Opening Ceremonies quickly stun us into complete silence, a respectful quiet that lingers until well into the march of the Athletes.
Guodong and I rush back to the Jiangsu Temple plaza and subway station, where we had earlier noticed a giant TV screen held up by an X-arm device on the back of a truck’s cab. I had insisted on being among regular Chinese for the lighting of the actual Olympic torch.
A young lady who works in a restaurant starts talking to me in Chinese. Her father is named Chun and her mother is named Lee, the reverse of my parent’s surnames. So we conclude that we are probably relatives somewhere.
An Austrian fellow from the party and his Diaspora girlfriend join us at the Plaza. Her roommate Vivian and I strike up a nice chat in mostly Chinese. She’s studying Japanese and so her English isn’t as strong, she explains. Vivian says that the two are not yet a couple, but they have “guangxi,” as the two salsa away in the square.
A local news reporter asks our motley expat crew to pose for them. By now, the crowd is on its feet, as the national anthem thunders, preceding the lighting of the torch.
Li Neng, the Chinese track champion during the 1984 L.A. Olympics, soars into the air like Peter Pan -- spectacular wirework. The crowd oohs and ahhs. He races along the top edge of the Birds Nest, Olympic Torch in hand, and ignites a fuse that sizzles and snakes into the gigantic Olympian flame. The camera pulls away to an aerial view of fireworks explode all over Beijing. One more spectacular moment in a night of endless of spectacular surprises.
The next day, Guodong sends me a link to a newspaper photo of our group in the Square. http://sh.eastday.com/qtmt/2008olympic/u1a460388.html.
Delirious in the moment.
--The Beginning --
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