Like over a billion people around the world, I recently watched the opening ceremonies of the London Summer Olympic Games. My eyes widened at the five rings being forged across the sky, I giggled at the corgis running down the staircase and Mr. Bean playing the piano, and I was transfixed at the appearances of Captain Hook and Voldemort. It was a spectacular spectacle. But the Summer Olympics, wherever and whenever they may be, will always take me back to one place: Beijing.
The first time I ever went to China coincided with China’s first-ever Olympic Games. Back in 2008, after one year learning Mandarin as a freshman in college, I decided to do a nine-week Mandarin immersion program in Beijing. Immersion meant we were bound to speaking, writing, reading, thinking, and even dreaming in Mandarin, day in and day out. We were allowed to speak English on the phone to our parents “softly” in our room—but not encouraged. If we were caught speaking English three times, the rules stated, we would be sent home. Needless to say, I wasn’t really thinking of the Olympics at the time—I was more worried about my ability to make friends with just one year of Chinese vocabulary to my name.
My first day in Beijing, there was construction everywhere and cute Olympic mascots on everything. I saw advertisements of hurdler/帥哥 Liu Xiang with his parents every time I took the subway. The track neighboring our university was closed down because the building next to it was needed to house athletes. We ran into Olympic athletes from Colombia and Sweden at XiuShuiJie 秀水街 (Silk Street), Beijing’s bargain market. I guess even athletes need knock-off Longchamp bags.
Everyone was counting down to 08.08.08, proclaimed the luckiest day in the luckiest month of the luckiest year (yes, 8 is a lucky number in China). As foreigners, people thought we were there for the Olympics. My friend was walking near campus one day and asked by some people driving by if he would like to be in an advertisement. Being not nearly as cautious as I am, he shrugged and said “keyi 可以.” He was taken in an unmarked car to a building “near a KFC,” as he told us later. There were people of all nationalities there, and all were being instructed to make different facial expressions for the camera. When he returned unscathed and told us the story, we laughed at how crazy he was. A few weeks later, the Olympic theme song “You and Me” came out—and there was our friend!
This is what the Olympics will always remind me of—the sudden joys of everyday life in Beijing. Some media in the U.S. have called China’s Olympic grandeur overdone in retrospect, finding London’s ceremonies more quirky, historical, and economical. But the grandeur is not the only thing I thought of as I turned on the TV to watch. I thought of sitting in a private room with a TV at the Beijing Peking Duck Restaurant Quanjude (全聚德), watching the ceremonies on screen with Chinese commentary and seeing the fireworks turn the sky purple through the open window. I thought of how the waiter still hadn’t come to give us our check, so we walked out of our room to find him and the entire staff of Quanjude, standing on their tiptoes or sitting on the edge of their seats, watching a projector with bated breath as the Parade of Nations walked on by. I thought of how we joined them, how they gamely cheered wildly for America, banging on pots and pans with utensils, and how when the Chinese athletes came out some of them cried. I thought of walking back to campus afterwards and feeling a city swell up—together—in anticipation and pride.
Because of all these thoughts, each time I watch the Olympics, I’ll remember Beijing, and how it really did welcome me.
Originally published: Aug 11, 2012 by China Personified (link)