Tag Archive: Inside the Dragon

  1. Final thoughts

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    By Donnell Gavin

    BEIJING, China, 7:54 p.m. — As of last night, I concluded my stay in Beijing and took an overnight train to Shanghai. Overall, my reflections on the city are first and foremost that they have accomplished the desired goal of making foreigners see the city as “modern” (though to some degree, this means less of the nostalgic tourist culture that I’m used to) and that I secretly care more about the Olympics than I realized (indoor cycling being perhaps the most surprisingly enjoyable event). Still, for many reasons (least of which not knowing Chinese or enough about Chinese history to appreciate the historic sites whose explanatory plaques were perhaps vaguer than strictly necessary), I could never imagine myself becoming one of the many Sinophiles who drops everything and moves to China (many among them Yalies, of course).

    Also, in my excitement, I forgot to mention we saw Michael Phelps at China Doll. My cohorts swooned — I don’t get it.

  2. Media Slave

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    By Austin Shiner

    BEIJING, China, 12:37 p.m. — My close range perspective has defined my Olympic experience. Although I’ve seen the athletes and venues in person and experienced five weeks of the host city’s culture, I know little about America’s Olympic pursuits. Realize my situation: I don’t understand any televised Olympic coverage and many high-priority Chinese events, such as weight lifting, archery, and shooting, don’t interest me. Without Bob Costas’ guiding hand I feel lost. Michael Phelps attracted only short-lived attention and I’ve heard none of the inspirational Olympic stories that typically dot NBC coverage. I’d bet that, in some ways, the average American knows more about these Olympics than I do. But then, if the devil’s in the details, there’s no replacing the local experience. Swarms of Olympic volunteers guide my way to, from, and around the Olympic village: such personal service, always given with a smile, is humbling. As mentioned by fellow blogger Donnell Gavin, this Olympic apparatus easily breaks down and leads to mild spectator confusion, but one cannot help but be amazed by the volunteers’ blazing enthusiasm and the system’s overall efficacy. Medal ceremonies, complete with orchestral national anthems, are touching. And then, when the day’s events end, there’s the food and celebration. Olympic Beijing combines feverous national spirit with uniquely broad internationalism that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Yet, without John William’s “Olympic Theme” and NBC’s enveloping telecasts, my Olympics have felt less than whole.

  3. American palate

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    By Austin Shiner

    BEIJING, China, 11:03 p.m. — I don’t care for McDonalds. Everything on the menu tastes the same: soft textured protein and carbs, occasionally with a mild crunch, mixed with a creamy sauce and a limp vegetable. But whereas the food is merely boring it’s the image that’s actively bothersome. The Golden Arches symbolize something foodies counter, namely America’s crusade against local agriculture and culinary identity.

    McDonald’s is big in China. It’s the only food available in the Olympic Village besides popcorn, chocolate chip bread, sausage on a stick, and “president snack noodles” (which aren’t much better than American ramen). When hunger strikes after a long day of women’s 10-meter air pistol, as it so often has for Sam and me, it’s either McDonald’s or a growling stomach. Despite my misgivings, I’ve now chosen McDonald’s three times. First a Big Mac, second a McMuffin, third a Mc-chicken sandwich.

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  4. The club scene

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    By Donnell Gavin

    BEIJING, China, 1:34 p.m. — Clubs in China are more carefully guarded than the Olympic events, and only slightly less guarded than the President (the obvious difference being the presence of guns to protect El Presidente, whereas the clubs just have belligerent teenagers with night sticks). When we arrived at China Doll (apparently the upscale-iest club in Beijing), we had already logged and hour or so at the bar across the street because the drinks at China Doll were apparently expensive, hard to obtain, etc etc. The place across the street was called “A Little High” (that was the English name — apparently you can only register Chinese names with the government, so the English names of things tend to be slightly bizarre/probably not a direct translation of the Chinese). My male friend had squeezed into a female friend’s loafers and she was wearing his flip flops (on the assumption, probably correct, that girls in flip flops would have less trouble than guys in flip flops, though I can’t imagine what the verdict would be on men somewhat conspicuously wearing women’s shoes). Then everyone yelled in Chinese about who was going to be let in, then the 19 year old guard got very fiesty and there was more yelling, then we were crammed into an elevator based on apparently eligibility for admittance and also on weight (the elevator would stop if it had more than X number of people). Then we got inside and nearly everyone was white and only like 10% of people were particularly dressed up and then Brendan Hansen’s manager licked my ear and I was confirmed in my general assessment that clubs everywhere are weird and gross.

    So I guess the moral of the story is that even if you are one of the most famous athletes in the world, the best you can do is end up at clubs with people like me and my friend in women’s shoes. (Realistically, this is more an example of how small the American community in China is, rather than how sad the post-medal celebrations are. At least I hope).

  5. The typical Chinese experience?

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    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:

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  6. Ambiance

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    By Austin Shiner

    BEIJING, China, 1:03 p.m. — It’s the ambiance that counts in Beijing. For the past four weeks I’ve been struck as much by this city’s extraordinary sights as by their environs. In cuisine, architecture, and history, it’s the subtleties, which in America I so often take for granted, that make the difference.

    Take lamb kabobs for example: China’s beloved yang rou chuar, or chuar for short, are sensational. The charcoal-grilled deliciousness overwhelms my senses and haunts my dreams. The restaurant, very cozy, always packed, with low tables pushed close to one another, is minimally air-conditioned. The heat, smoke, and meaty perfume sweep into the dining room creating a sweaty, high intensity dining arena. 

    Our kabobs come out on a metal tray. “You have to eat them while they’re boiling magma hot or else the lamb fat coagulates and gets gross,” warns Sam. Each skewer is modest, only two to three small bites each, so one after another I tear the lamb from the thin wooden dowel, pilling up 40 to 50 every visit. The spices are entirely unique, unlike Mediterranean lamb – recreating it will be hard. Normally such an experience would be uncomfortable, the sweat making things awkward, but not at a chuar restaurant. Here, it’s primal all the way, and I absolutely adore it.

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  7. “Hey Lady”

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    By Donnell Gavin

    BEIJING, China, 7:18 p.m. —

    Things you can barter for in China:

    Designer jeans (good price ~$15 American)

    Pearls (good price under $10 American)

    Beer (good price typically ~$2 American, though I’m told it’s higher with all the white-people-who-don’t-know-better in town)

    Things you can’t barter for in China:

    McDonalds (though one of our more China-savvy companions told some Canadian tourists that you could) (more…)

  8. Sexed-up karaoke: awkward

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    By Austin Shiner

    BEIJING, China, 7:31 p.m. —

    “Which do you think is the prettiest?”

    I was shocked. “They’re all very attractive,” I said with an astonished smile.“

    I knew you’d say that.”

    Ten young women, all identically dressed in black miniskirts and plunging neckline tops, lined the front wall. I leaned towards Sam, “Are they serious?”

    “They’re serious.”

    Culture shock. I’d been warned about the gross public spitting and the absence of coffee (big downer); I even knew about Asia’s all-consuming obsession with karaoke. But the hot drinking buddies? Here’s awkward: a paid female “attendant” flirts with you in a language you don’t understand while your host, the fantastically wealthy CEO of an architecture firm, offers you cigarettes (I don’t smoke) and toasts you with Hennessey Cognac for three hours. And you have to sing karaoke. Welcome to KTV.

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  9. Like Epcot

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    By Donnell Gavin

    BEIJING, China, 10:17 p.m. — Since we didn’t have any tickets to the Games today (though Phelps has surpassed the record for total lifetime gold medals, and is within shooting range of Spitz’s 7 gold medals in one year), we ventured over to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, which contains the Emperor’s palace and several naked babies (diapers, it seems, are pretty uncommon, as people just dangle their half nude infants at arm’s length). We missed seeing Mao’s body by mere seconds (though the general consensus is “overrated” and “like a bad wax sculpture”) and the weather was by far the worst it’s been since we got here. The air more or less felt like grilled cheese — hot, thick, close, and inescapable (though perhaps the analogy doesn’t hold up so well, as I’ve never found grilled cheese particularly close or inescapable).

    Though it was hard to look past the low hanging clouds of haze, what was perhaps most striking about the visit (and a prior venture to the Temple of Heaven) is that nearly all of the historic buildings have been repainted within the past month (the centermost of the Palace buildings smelled distinctly of spraypaint). While it’s often brought up that Americans are overly conscious of our brief history (“sitting on a park bench that’s older than my country” was I believe how Minus the Bear put it), the regular refinishing of monuments that are hundreds of years old makes the Forbidden City feel frighteningly like Epcot.

  10. Olympic machinery

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    By Austin Shiner

    BEIJING, China, 12:30 p.m. — The Olympic Green Archery Field was somewhere in North Beijing — that I knew. The hundreds of blue and white-shirted Olympic volunteers swarming the subway entrance would know precisely where and would speak English. That I knew too. I whipped out my ticket (high quality card stock, very nice and anti-counterfeit). “Archery?” I queried while shooting a pretend arrow. “Yes, um, take the No. 1 Olympic bus. Go straight and turn right to bus stop,” replied my smiling helper. Superb! No language barrier and clear directions — I was on my way. Until I got lost.

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  11. Nothing but Fuwa

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    By Donnell Gavin

    BEIJING, China, 1:12 p.m. — Though I have, in general, found the Olympic events to be reasonably well organized and overstaffed with eager adolescents who certainly speak better English than I do Chinese (which is to say, the people who wand you to determine whether you’re carrying prohibited firearms know how to say “Turn around,” “Put out your arms” and “Thank you for your cooperation”), there is an almost disappointing lack of knick knacks for sale.

    Were it not prohibited to bring commercial goods into the stadiums, my traveling companions and I would be making a tidy profit selling Olympic themed trinkets and “flags of the world.”

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