By Austin ShinerBEIJING, China, 12:30 a.m. — Olympic preparations and paranoia, which consume so much of Beijing in this final week before the Games, restrict fun but still fail to drain life out of this city. Many bars and clubs are shut, all parcels are x-rayed upon entrance to the subway, taxi routes are diverted and turn a 10-minute ride into a half-marathon and the internet café that used to accept my driver’s license as adequate personal identification now requires my passport. Yet I still frequent my favorite lamb kabob restaurant, where Ge Ge, Sam and I continue to devour as much fatty connective tissue as we can muster. The city, in most respects, is functioning as usual. One of Chairman Mao’s favorite restaurants is located just outside the Forbidden City (convenient). It’s Hunanese, as was Mao. Ge Ge knows the owner, a delightfully crusty old guy named Ma Ge who smokes like a chimney and drinks like a W12. My three-hour dinner there last week was delightful, filled with pepper-eating challenges and tastiness. After a round of Hunanese chicken (1/4 chicken, 3/4 peppers) Ma Ge, Ge Ge, and another friend named (you guessed it) Tang Ge started chatting about American universities. All three friends, including crusty old Ma Ge, had heard of Yale, but didn’t really know anything about it. Ge Ge then informed the group that Yale is best known for history and political science (I mentioned that we’re working on that). Yale’s penetration into the Chinese conscious goes deeper than just our generation. For the next few weeks I’ll be working to figure out how deep Yale’s ties with China actually run. I saw my first blue sky yesterday. It was glorious. For the past week and a half I’ve lived in a virtual bubble of smog, a la The Simpsons Movie — it really steals one’s sense of place or connection. But yesterday even the mountains on the outskirts of the city were visible, and my perspective on Beijing life shifted entirely. Whereas industrial efficiency and good restaurants seemed to be the full extent of the city, it now appeared that there was more. Today though the skyline is back to normal and probably will be for many days to come — it will take a miracle to have a blue-sky day for the Opening Ceremony. Flowers are everywhere. Sam and I leave for dinner and return, inevitably, to find a new flowerbed on the street. At first it was the large square planters on the corners complete with ridiculous white picket fences 4 inches tall, but then the streets were lined with hundreds of white column planters filled with daisies and marigolds. Around the same time the flowers started appearing Chinese flags burst out of the woodwork — every shop, restaurant, and home in the neighborhood has the same standard issue Chinese flag out front. Sam and I presume this must be a government mandate, as the Olympic Torch will pass through the main road near our apartment. With all the flags and flowers the neighborhood will look festive, but it feels like putting makeup on a lizard — it still doesn’t make this city look much better.