Beijing putting best foot forward as opening ceremony draws near


BEIJING — The Olympic hosts want to make a good first impression. That’s no big surprise. The world is watching, and it’s why you are greeted by one set of smiling volunteers when you walk off the airplane at Beijing Capital International Airport.

It’s why another set of volunteers, also smiling, asks if you need any help with your luggage. And it’s why another group of volunteers, many of them college-age students, offers to check the time of the next shuttle bus to your hotel or if it’s more convenient to take a taxi there.

I waited for a shuttle bus. Zhang Lu waited with me as a few other volunteers were chatting a few meters away. She told me she’s studying at a teachers college in Beijing but taking time off from school now to help with the Olympics. She admitted she’s from the same hometown as Chinese President Hu Jintao.

There are hundreds of thousands — actually millions — just like her.

Zhang spoke in hesitant but cheerful English, enthusiastic to try a few words after I made a statement about my respect for Yao Ming as a basketball player or about the media circus that followed 110-meter hurdler Liu Xiang in Osaka last summer at the IAAF World Athletics Championships, or if I asked a question.

Then the shuttle bus arrived. Zhang helped me bring my luggage onto the bus, smiling before saying goodbye.

The one-hour ride to the hotel was a quiet one. We remained in an Olympic expressway lane the entire trip. It was too dark to see much more than the glittering lights of new hotels, gas stations or thousands of taxis.

Seated to my right was another young college-age volunteer. She didn’t tell me her name, but she smiled a lot, too. She said, “I hope I can help you have a pleasant trip to your next destination,” and similar statements along the way.

She said she was a first-year social worker student. We started speaking about U.S. universities and Chinese universities. She said there are really only two famous universities in Beijing, marveling at how many well-known universities there are in the United States and the sheer volume of people involved in social work.

My bus-ride companion said she’s looking forward to watching swimming, tennis and table tennis during the Olympics.

As for my stay in China, she spoke in an optimistic tone. “Of course, I’m sure you’ll like it.”

She thanked me for visiting China and recommended that I try the roasted duck.

When I got to my fourth-floor hotel room, my home away from home for the next three weeks, I was immediately reminded of the environmental problems in China. Just above the sink in my bathroom are the following words: “Water is not drinkable.”

I flipped on the TV and saw snippets of an NHK World news program focusing on the upcoming Olympics.

The newscaster spoke about the number of world leaders who plan to attend the opening ceremony on Friday night, listing the figure as 90-plus individuals, including U.S. President George W. Bush. The newscaster, speaking in English, also detailed the reluctance of some political figures to associate themselves with China because of what occurred in Tibet earlier this year.

There were pictures of the violence in Tibet, showing the military police and protesters involved in the confrontation.

No, not all the news here is as bright as a red rose.

Then moments later I tuned in for the closing minutes of CCTV-9’s “Dialogue,” a one-on-one interview program. Dimitris Papaioannou, the director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympics, was the special guest.

Papaioannou insisted simplicity is the key to making the ceremonies successful, hoping the Chinese would avoid overproduction or a reliance on non-stop extravagance during the shows.

“I think grandness can be very short,” the Greek artist said.

“I am wishing for a moment of magic with a scent of China,” he added.

I second that motion!