Melody’s Olympics: Melody exposed to beach volleyball

If you’ve been a faithful reader of Melody Ng’s dispatches from China here on News Cut (previous versions here and here), you probably have a feeling for her. Yes, she’s every bit as delightful as her prose would indicate.

“What do you think you’ll want me to send from Beijing,” she asked me last week.

“Whatever you find interesting, I’ll find interesting,” I said.

Today, she apologized because she’s in two of the pictures in today’s slideshow, which cracks me up. She’s on vacation, visiting family, and apologizing to us.

She’ll be sending her beach volleyball photos to be included the above slideshow soon. So please check back.

8-18-08 Thoughts from some Beijing folk about the Olympics. Had an opportunity to talk with some people today about the Olympics. Some of the thoughts they shared:

City volunteers (Forbidden City) - Met two Beijing college students, male, who were off from their volunteer assignments today (though still wearing their signature blue jerseys). They shared their crackers and dried haw fruit snacks with my daughter. Like all the other college student volunteers I’ve spoken with, they’re thrilled to be hosting the Olympics in their very own country. They didn’t sign up early enough to be part of the contingent of 70,000 BO COG (Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games) volunteers, what seem to be the most high status volunteer jobs. They’re part of the 400,000 city volunteers who do anything from translating to giving directions to helping people who have medical problems. (Supposedly there are an additional approximately one million volunteers who are assigned other tasks – I’ll get to that later.) To volunteer, they had to pass an exam on Beijing culture, Beijing landmarks and directions, and volunteering skills (these last questions might be something like: What do you say if you see a foreigner who looks lost?). Both admitted needing to study a little beforehand. But they passed, and they’re honored to be able to be part of this historic occasion. They haven’t felt any inconveniences due to the Games, and no Beijing visitors they’ve met through their volunteer work have been rude or unpleasant to them.

Cleaning woman (Forbidden City) – This young mom of a one-year-old has been sweeping and emptying trash receptacles in the Forbidden City for the past month. She says the job wasn’t hard to get; one just has to “have the guts” to do it. She likes it. She likes the Olympics, too, as does her entire family, who live in Beijing. The Olympics haven’t affected her life in any negative way. She believes the number of people visiting (and presumably the amount of trash she has to deal with) each day at work is about the same as other times – though I’m not sure how well she can compare since she’s been there for only a short time.

Bottle collecting grandmother (outside the back gate, Forbidden City) – Many people in China dig plastic bottles out of trash cans and pick them up from the sides of roads to sell to recycling plants. It’s best if you don’t have to reach into dirty trash cans to get the bottles, so some people wait in crowded areas and ask passersby if they may have their finished bottles. This 70-something woman was doing just that with a companion behind the Forbidden City when we walked near. She says she has to collect bottles because her husband is dead and her son recently lost his job. Selling used bottles puts food on their table. Her face lights up when I ask how she feels about the Olympic Games. She watches competitions on TV; diving is one of her favorites.

8-18-08 Wangfujing Shopping District: A tale of two (or four, really) volunteers. Wangfujing, where we visited briefly earlier this week, is a giant pedestrian shopping area just a little east of Tiananmen. About half a block north of the McDonalds by the entrance to the area, a small placard stands in the street: “Need help? We speak Korean, English, Japanese, Spanish, Chinese.” Young people stand around the sign; their white polo shirts say, “China loves you,” and list off the languages they speak. I meet “Jenny” Zhang, 16, whose English is excellent. These volunteers all come from her foreign language academy for underprivileged kids in Guangzhou (southern China). 3.5 years ago, she was begging and collecting used plastic bottles to sell. She had to drop out of school because her parents could no longer afford the fees. Then her teacher rescued her from the streets, as he did all the other students. He houses and feeds them (I don’t know how, because she says he’s not working), and he teaches them the languages he speaks, and how to behave. Jenny and four classmates came up to Beijing to help with the Olympics. They aren’t registered as official employees, but they stand in Wangfujing all day every day to help out however they can. (Several people speaking several languages stop by to ask for directions while I’m talking with Jenny.)

Near as I can tell, they get nothing for their work. But Jenny loves being able to be part of the Olympics in this way. She says they’ll be in town through the Paralympics. They hope to travel to Sichuan Province later in the year to help with post-earthquake relief work.

I also meet three other people on Wangfujing. I’ve been wanting to ask some of the people I see wearing red arm bands stamped: “Public security volunteer,” because I see these arm bands everywhere: a sidewalk bicycle repair man near the Dum Tower, a woman in charge of keeping public bathrooms clean in a hutong, a waiter at a famous dumpling restaurant where we eat lunch.

The first guy I see with a red armband is pouring the messy contents of a trash can into a trash cart he’s been pedaling up and down the street. He says he’s got too much work to do to explain, and pedals off. When I ask a guy behind the counter at a concession stand, he says the arm band’s required – that he wouldn’t be allowed to work here if he lost it. He can tell me nothing more about it. The street sweeper I sidle up to is by far the most forthcoming. He says that he’s required to wear this arm bands (and the blue volunteer jerseys) during the Olympics. But he wasn’t given any special training in security (even though the bands would make one believe he could help with security issues), and he’s not even sure what the band means. It looks like a lot of people in the service industry were given these security volunteer bands to wear. Is it a big sham? Should I feel less safe now?

8-18-08 Beach volleyball men’s quarterfinals. More Olympics tickets! Just after I hang up the phone after talking with Cathy Wurzer tonight, an American friend calls saying his mom and sister are too tired to attend the beach volleyball match in 40 minutes, and would we want to buy their seats? It’s raining, but hey – how often will I ever have the chance to watch Olympic competitions? And no need to deal with scalpers (I read last night that a slew had been busted in a raid yesterday, Chinese and foreign. Was the guy who didn’t show up at our sports bar one of them?). So I take the tickets, and my brother and I rush off for the stadium.

When we arrive (about 10 minutes after the first match started) things are looking deceptively unfestive outside. The queuing-up area is deserted, and there’s just one vendor with the usual Chinese flag-themed merchandise. But volunteers greet us warmly, check our tickets, and send us to the metal detector. I also get patted down. The woman/girl makes me take everything out of my pockets (tissue paper, wet wipes, lip balm – which she makes me put on in front of her to prove it is what I claim it to be – and a lamb curry puff – which she doesn’t make me take a bite out of) before letting me through.

We go into the stadium, and this is not at all what I was expecting. (No, I don’t follow sports much.) Beach volleyball is raucous. I can’t believe it’s an Olympic sport. The music alternates between fraternity house party and sporting event tunes. The announcer is trying to hype up the crowd. He makes us stand and sit, clap, do the wave, stomp our feet, and yell “Jia you!” (“Go go go!” to the Chinese).

Two groups of young women in red bikinis are undulating to the beat at the ends of the court. One group looks Chinese, but with unnaturally deep tans for a people group whose beauty ideal is white skin. The Chinese announcer refers to them as “Shatan Baobei” – “Beach Babies.” Three of the Olympic mascots show up as well. Unlike American mascots, they’re not in furry, cloth suits, but in shiny, inflated plastic. They look like humongous, animated, blow up toys. (Guess that adage about never sticking your head inside a plastic bag has some exceptions.) I feel like we’re at some MTV spring break beach party. It takes me almost the entire first match to learn to focus on the game and not get distracted by everything else going on around it. How do the judges do it? How do the volleyball players?

Our first match is Austria versus Brazil. Brazil wins, but I miss nearly every point. By the second match, U.S. (Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal) versus Brazil, I’m able to actually enjoy the game. But I still marvel that beach volleyball could be serious enough for the Olympics. Do people start off in regular volleyball and then “graduate” to the beach version? Is one more difficult than the other? The Brazilian fans stand out in their yellow and green. They’re also united in their cheers, and sing cool songs. It seems we Americans (at least the ones here tonight) can manage only “U-S-A! U-S-A!” in unison, and only near the end of the match when we sense that our athletes need us to pull together. We don’t sit together in the stadium, and we don’t cheer together. Is this part of our heritage of independence and self-reliance? Now I feel badly that I’m not wearing red, white and blue, that I didn’t even think to pack anything patriotic for this trip.

Gibb and Rosenthal play a good game, but lose (bummer). After the game, spectators start posing for pictures with people from countries other than their own. They also leave behind a lot, a lot of trash. The good and the bad of the Olympic Games.

  • http://www.trailblz.com Brian Hanf

    KQRS morning show has brad blanks on there show (bradblanks.com) and he has said the the Beach volleyball is just a big reason to drink and party. Beer costing about 75 cents, and the “Cheer Leaders” lead the event to be very party like.