Melody’s Olympics – Living in Beijing

MPR’s Melody Ng is in Beijing on vacation and has been providing us a street-level view of life during the Olympics. Here is her latest dispatch.

8-21-08 Fulicheng (our apartment complex). Everyone agrees that the middle class in China is growing markedly. You can’t miss it here in Beijing. Teens in supposedly mod hairdos and outfits text message and canoodle over fries and Big Macs at McDonalds and KFC. Kids zip around on these sleek, small-wheeled bicycles that can fold up to be carried onto the subway or up the elevator. Our local five-story mall has eight jewelry stores on the first floor, Starbucks (where a Frappuccino Venti costs 34 RMB, ~$5), Häagen-Dazs, a Merrell store, Quicksilver and Lenscrafters. Its lobby doubles as a showroom for Chrysler and Skoda. Hop into one of the vehicles to see what you’ll look like behind the wheel; take the Jeep home for 450,000 RMB (~$66K).

Women stroll the grounds of our apartment complex trailing small fluffy dogs: American Eskimos, Pomeranians, Pekinese and miniature Schnauzers. Yesterday, I watched an elderly woman directing four skinny men pushing an upright piano on a wheeled platform across a large intersection, down the sidewalk, and across a couple other intersections into our complex.

We’re staying in a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment on the 22nd floor of a large, high-rise apartment complex named Fulicheng, complete with private gardens and water features. Our apartment isn’t anything special by U.S. standards, but it’s by far the fanciest place I’ve ever lived in China. And the grounds of our complex really are impressive. Rent here is upwards of 6000 RMB/month (nearly $900). Pay extra for a membership at the exclusive, on-site gym and pool with floor-to-ceiling windows. I’d say this place is upper middle class.

Our first apartment, the one I described earlier in our trip, is probably more middle middle class. But then again, I’d say my former students, some of whom were college professors, who lived husband, wife and young child in a single room with unfinished cement floors, cooked on a two-burner gas range in a dark hallway, and shared a common bathroom with everyone else of the same gender on their floor were middle class, too. That, though, may have been true only in the old China of 15 years ago. Today, people who live in those conditions might no longer fall into the middle class.

Chinese people call regular people “lao bai xin,” literally, “old hundred surnames.” These are the common folk. The term used to mean anyone who wasn’t a government leader or official. But now, its meaning may more be people who aren’t middle class yet – the migrant construction workers, dumpling wrappers, street sweepers, ticket collectors, waiters, fruit sellers, and security guards – people we encounter every day and rarely think to converse with even though we benefit greatly from their labor. Many people have shared with MPR News their stories of feeling left behind, of the middle class no longer being financially stable.

Although Chinese people didn’t have much in the past, I never had the sense that most were discontent with or anxious about their financial situations – perhaps because everyone (in the cities, anyway) made about the same amount. Today, I’d still say the middle class here seems to see themselves as doing well, or at least OK. They have a little disposable income. They can afford tickets to the Olympics (and are able to navigate the Internet well enough to have entered the ticket lottery).

What about the new lao bai xin? If the middle class is growing, then the working class must be shrinking. Are they feeling left behind? They’ve already endured generations of “eating bitter” (“chi ku” – a common Chinese expression for dealing with difficulties, or sucking it up). How much longer?

8-21-08 Outside the Worker’s Stadium (football – i.e., soccer – venue): So much for cracking down on scalpers. I hope the police are as easy on those one hundred plus scalpers they arrested in that big bust earlier this week as they are on scalpers outside the soccer stadium this evening. As we walk the long block past Worker’s Stadium on our way to dinner, we pass numerous fans heading to their seats, as well as dozens of men who are trying to sell tickets – and not so subtly either.

Some walk around fanning themselves with groups of six or seven tickets. Others stand with tickets peeking out of their shirt pockets. Many call out to passersby: “Want tickets?” or their selling prices. I hear people haggling over prices, and watch a group of students move from scalper to scalper seeking out the best deal. What astonishes me, though, is that two police cars and several officers are standing by the entrance to the stadium, within 50 feet of many of these transactions, and they are completely ignoring them.

A Taiwanese-American friend who joins us for dinner isn’t surprised. She says that when she went over to the beach volleyball venue a couple days ago to try to pick up some scalped tickets, a police officer actually gave her advice to buy tickets not for that day’s competition, but for the next day’s. Overhearing the conversation, the college student Olympic volunteers standing nearby laughed at his helpfulness. My friend’s really cute, and she speaks Chinese fluently, but honestly.

8-22-08 Bummed. Yes, the I.O.C ought to investigate thoroughly the allegations that gold medal Chinese gymnast He Kexin may be only 14 and not 16 as her passport, she, and Chinese officials have claimed. No, she and her team don’t deserve their gold medals, no matter how good their performances, if they broke the rules of the Games. But I am so deeply saddened by the news of additional evidence that He and other Chinese gymnasts may be underage, because I don’t want “China cheats!” to be what people outside China take away from this year’s Games.

A few days ago, I asked my Chinese friend Alan what people are saying about other accusations of … let’s call it dishonesty – for example, the lip synching little girl at the opening ceremonies. Now my friend is an honest guy. But his attitude, and that of other Chinese people he’s heard discussing this issue, is that China wanted to put on a good show, to make the opening ceremonies as perfect as they could be. So is it really a big deal that they substituted a prettier little girl for one who has a lovely voice but isn’t as attractive?

Personally, I don’t understand how any little girl could be so unattractive that she wouldn’t be deemed fit for the big show, but Alan’s point is that China wants the world to see it at its best. That’s true of the government, who we can and should criticize for all the bad decisions they’ve made and continue to make (though we should also recognize the reforms they’re trying to make). But it’s just as true, if not more so, for the Chinese people.

Before I even walked on Chinese soil, I knew that Chinese people are proud of their country, particularly its rich history and culture. After all, I grew up with Chinese parents, who even though they left this country as young children and never intended to return here, were constantly mindful of their heritage, reminding me daily that I was Chinese, and therefore had to behave in a certain way that honored the standards of my ancestors. My childhood was full of “Chinese children do this” and “Chinese children don’t do that.”

In the fall of 1993, when I was teaching at the N.W. Institute of Political Science and Law in Xi’an, the I.O.C. chose Sydney for the 2000 Olympics. I’m not sure I was even aware that a host city was about to be named, but my students all came to class the next day tired (because they had stayed up late into the night waiting for the decision), and despondent (because they so desperately wanted the Olympics to come to China). It was on that morning that I realized how important these Games were for to regular Chinese people – even if they’re an 18-hr train ride away and even if they likely wouldn’t have the opportunity to see an event in person. And it was on that day that I decided that should China ever win their bid to host, that I wanted to be here to share in the experience.

Everyday Chinese people have given so much of their time and efforts to these Games – all those seniors in their white volunteer jerseys who are sitting out on the sidewalk all day long on what seems to be every block of the city, ready to answer questions and be of service, all those eager students in their blue volunteer jerseys who are finally putting their years of language training to good use, all those other hundred of thousands or millions (I’ve never been very good at estimating) of people who aren’t recognized or repaid in any way for their contributions, but upon whose work the Games have been built and continue to run. These Chinese citizens are so proud that the Olympics are in China right now. And none of these wrongdoings, crimes, failings – or whatever you want to call the sins of the Chinese government – is their faults.

On the second day of competitions, my friend Alan was taking a bus up to the Olympic tennis venue to watch the first round of the women’s doubles. Because he speaks English and is super thoughtful, he stopped to help an American family that was confused about which way to go. The signage was poor, and even the bus driver wasn’t sure where they should get off, because it was early on in the Games, and (according to Alan) things weren’t well organized. He watched the woman lose her patience as more and more Chinese people tried to cram onto the bus, as is common here. She started yelling at them in English that there was no more room and they needed to back off. He continued to try to get this family to where they wanted to go even as the woman was addressing his as “tennis guy” and saying if she had known what it’d be like here she never would have come to Beijing. He did this not only because he’s terrific, but also because he wants the world to experience the best of his country.

Alan’s wife, Li Jian, a journalist here in Beijing, said last week that she hopes people will understand that China’s not going to be able to do the Olympics perfectly, that they’ll make mistakes because this is their first time doing something like this. She asks us for patience as they learn. Lying about the age of your athletes so they can compete (if true) would be much more than a “mistake.” But I echo Li Jian’s sentiments. I hope people will remember so much more of the Beijing Olympics. And I hope everyday Chinese people will say good-bye to the Games on Sunday with their joy and pride intact.

8-22-08 One more thought on Chinese athletes. This may be highly unpatriotic, but although I love the U.S., I almost always root for athletes from communist/socialist countries at the Olympics. Our athletes seem to mostly have well-rounded lives, and something to look forward to beyond their sport. Think Shawn Johnson who’s going back to Des Moines with a gold medal and three silvers. She hangs out with friends, attends dances at her public high school, tries to limit her training to 25 hours per week, and gets straight A’s. Unless something goes horribly awry, she’ll do great when she gives up gymnastics. Not so for Chinese athletes.

According to a 22 July story from NPR, an estimated 80 percent of China’s retired athletes are destitute, ill/injured, or unemployed, reports a publication of China’s Physical Education and Sport Committee. I’m not exactly surprised. I met a coach of the Chinese weight lifting team back in Beijing years ago. He steadied me on a crowded public bus when my heavy hiking backpack knocked me off balance as the bus sped up. He then helped me off at my stop, and carried my backpack for me a ways down the road as we talked. My Mandarin was pretty bad, but he was patient, and we communicated enough to for me to find out that he had competed in the 1984 Olympics in L.A., and was now coaching. He had a job, and he didn’t look poor or injured. But later, I received a letter from him, and – just thinking about his letter now almost makes me tear up. I wish I knew where he is now – his handwriting looked like mine (nearly illiterate, me). It was big and blocky, like a kid’s. It was clear that he had received little schooling. China’s athletes deserve better. Maybe this gymnastics investigation will help.

Update Fri 6:45 a.m. – A few days ago, Melody promised to send pictures of her trip to the beach volleyball venue that a friend took. We waited anxiously. One arrived today. It was of the men’s competition. They dress normally. Not that it matters, of course.


  • Lesli

    Can I just say how much I’m enjoying Melody’s reports?

    Thanks for posting them–it helps me bring a different perspective to our lunchroom conversations when the topic turns to China and the Olympics.

  • brian

    I second Lesli’s comment.