I spent ten days in China in October 1994. The closest thing to a "red October" I'll likely see, that journey -- I was part of a press junket previewing the Wonders exhibition, "Imperial Tombs of China" -- was as distant from western perceptions of communism as my memory can recall. Needless to say, the government officials who hosted our wide-eyed party of journalists were on their A game, just as all of China should be when the Olympic Games open in Beijing Friday. But whatever lengths may have been pursued 14 years ago to close the gap between east and west -- between perception and reality, one might argue -- are among the components of the continued efforts to bridge opposite sides of the world, and balance the relationship between the last two "super powers" our planet is likely to host.
Whether from Hong Kong (then still a British territory), Xi'an (where jaw met floor as my party walked among the long-buried terra cotta army of Emperor Qin Shi-huang-di), or Beijing (we took a short bus ride to the Great Wall), my memories of China start with the crowds. Walking around the Forbidden City one afternoon, I made the comment that on every block we'd seen, whatever day of the week, it always seemed like a ball game had just finished, with the departing fans filling sidewalks and streets, cars and cabs bumper-to-bumper, pedestrians young and old eager to get to their next destination.
But the crowds were invariably friendly. My group stood out in China, even with a contingent of guides and translators. Adding a significant language barrier -- a barely rudimentary knowledge of the romance languages will get you nowhere in the Far East -- those of us from the Mid-South were curiosities, but only until the first smile was exchanged.
I call on these happy reflections because I'd like to believe that the controversy that follows any western discussion of China -- be it over Tibet, Darfur, or human rights in general -- can become part of the international hug that every Olympic gathering aims to be, and not the central distraction (violent or otherwise) we remember from Beijing '08. China has room for improvement as it gains ground on the developed world -- and it's gaining fast, folks -- but so does every nation with interests that stretch global harmony. An open mind on the part of Olympic athletes should be enough to inspire open minds on the part of traveling sports fans, journalists, dare I say even diplomats and heads of state. Yes, China must improve its treatment of all its people. That improvement will come quicker through dialogue -- which starts with a visit to Beijing -- than it will through finger-pointing or threats of international action.
A significant bonus during my visit to Beijing was a college friend joining me from his home in Tokyo. A Japanese native, Tamio moved to America in elementary school, graduated with a degree in economics from Tufts, and returned to Japan not long before my press junket. He emphasized during our travels -- probably during our stroll on the Great Wall -- that wherever I go, wherever I live, when I read about China now, it will feel closer to home. And he was absolutely right.
There was a free night we had in Beijing, in which Tamio and I bravely took to the streets without our formal supervisors or translators. We happened upon a small restaurant (maybe five tables) not too far from the Forbidden City. If there were other diners in that restaurant, I don't remember them. What I do recall is the most energetic and friendly wait staff I've seen before or since (and, alas, a bathroom upstairs that was outdoors and alongside a fire escape). Tamio and I enjoyed a full meal -- rice, dumplings, some chicken and vegetables -- and a tasty bottle of red wine. All for five American dollars. I've tried to do the economics on this for 14 years now, and still can't grasp how fundamentally different two societies are when a meal in one would cost ten times what it does in another.
Suffice it to say, that same meal in central Beijing would cost more than five dollars today, and it'll cost much more 14 years from now. It's but a tiny sample of a gap being closed, a bridge being slowly built between east and west. And over the next two weeks, as, couch-bound, I watch runners, swimmers, and gymnasts compete for the world's attention, China will, indeed, feel quite close to home.