By Austin Shiner
BEIJING, China, 9:11 p.m. — My flight thrilled upon descent. The turbulence was fun enough, but entering the cloud layer was captivating: Beijing, and Olympic fever, lay below. A bird’s-eye view of the city’s gleaming towers and brand-spanking-new airport would make a wonderful finale to a long globe-spanning journey. We plunged into the clouds, wings rattling, and burst through the cover to see … nothing. The polluted haze completely obscured the ground.
I’m staying in a Great Leap Forward-era Beijing apartment with Sam, a Chinese friend from high school. For five weeks I’ll be learning Chinese, seeing the sights, eating and attempting to explore grassroots Yale-China relations. How deep do Yale’s ties to China extend? Have average people heard of Yale? How are Yale and Harvard perceived differently? These are all questions that the Olympics’ fever pitch (and the proliferation of young English speakers whom I can interview) facilitates answering. Other issues, such as the role of journalism and the effect of pollution on the Olympics, are both somewhat unknown and great fodder for blogging.
My blazing passion for food and cuisine will undoubtedly pop its head into each post. The food here is fantastically delicious, cheap, and so varied that I needn’t eat the same dish twice (although the 100 fatty lamb kabobs Sam and I devoured last night excited such passion that we’ll undoubtedly go back). Sam’s family friend, who for simplicity’s sake I’ll refer to as ge ge (older brother), has already been a big player in my Chinese experience and will make many appearances in my writing.
So, on pollution: Yesterday, Sam and I visited the Summer Palace, the emperor’s enormous vacation home in central Beijing. Its primary fixture is a huge lake that Sam and I took nearly 4 hours to circumnavigate on foot. The central gazebo-like causeway, known throughout China for its length and thousands of unique painted embellishments, was dotted with speakers playing the Kill Bill theme song on repeat. The tunes made the heat and humidity feel better, knowing that at least I wasn’t smashing my fist into a thick wooden plank as part of my kung fu training. When we got back to the apartment I took a full, deep breath, and my chest burned – four hours of walking on a hazy day, when the other side of the lake wasn’t visible and the cloudless sky wasn’t blue but solid white, had made breathing noticeably more difficult, if only temporarily. The mild pain only lasted for about a half-hour, but there’s no question: running the 10,000 meters on a hazy day will be a problem. Beijing has two weeks to clean up its act — let’s hope it can make it.