By Donnell Gavin
BEIJING, China, 10:29 p.m. — Since most people who read this probably won’t be familiar with the intricacies of my travel plans (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!), I should state for the record that I missed the opening ceremonies. Flat out, dead asleep on a trans-Pacific flight kind of missed them. But, despite this perhaps egregious oversight, I have managed to catch bits and pieces of the ceremonies during my various and sundry trips on the Beijing subway system (which is punctual, but agonizingly crowded, with list of people you should cede your seat to that is significantly longer than the rather rudimentary “elderly and disabled” of the New York system).
Despite my spotty watching, it’s been suggested to me that, in some ways, the opening ceremonies typify the overall Chinese experience — hundreds and occasionally thousands of people, working together to achieve an ostensibly communal goal while receiving no individual recognition and expressing little individual creativity. While certainly true (and while one could argue that the opening ceremonies employed thousands of people in a dignified and patriotic manner), this was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Two other equally stark (if slightly more obscure) examples:
1. Much has been made of the architectural innovations Beijing has added to it’s skyline — in particular, the Bird’s Nest, the Water Cube and the CCTV Headquarters (which foreign news has erroneously reported people call the “big shorts”). Though these distinctive buildings certainly contribute to the sense of Beijing as a “modern city” on the “cutting edge,” all were designed by Western architects (Herzog and de Meuron; PTW architects — with aid from the China State Construction and Engineering Corporation; and Rem Koolhas and Ole Scheeren, respectively). General consensus suggests it’s because the Chinese education system shunts students into pragmatic career paths and discourages creative thinking and innovation.
2. Today at the indoor cycling event, there were easily 50 and probably closer to 200 Chinese volunteers engaged in such vital activities as welcoming me, directing me towards a security stand that was three feet away and (my personal favorite) indicating obstacles in my path that I might want to avoid. Over all of this, a cheerful girl shouted from a lifeguard stand “Hello, new friends. Enjoy the games!” Though these few phrases of English certainly prevented me from feeling unwelcome or falling on my face as I made my way from the slow moving security line to the slow moving ticket check line, it was clear that — in lieu of implementing an intuitive system to facilitate large groups of people moving in an orderly manner — the government/Olympic committee had instead employed thousands of eager, nationalistic youths who (in exchange for the glimpse of glory apparently associated with any Olympic connection — don’t even mention the girls stationed in dreary corners of obscure subway stations for a similar purpose) signed up for essentially menial and useless volunteer jobs. Worse yet, working these jobs prevents them from actually attending any of the events.