Scenes From Beijing (cont.)
A dog eat dog world?
BEIJING --Earlier this week I attended a banquet hosted by SI China, which is Sports Illustrated's sister publication in China. It was an interesting evening, and for an old dog, I learned some new tricks.
Sorry, but I've got dogs on the brain. I was seated at a table with a dozen or so locals from Beijing, one of whom spoke excellent English and served as table translator. The U.S. Cycling team served as the launching point for the evening, and they were roundly mocked by the locals for getting off the plane at the Beijing Airport wearing surgical masks. I admit it wasn't their finest diplomatic hour, but the truth is the air here has a gunmetal sheen that burns the eyes and an acrid flavor that tickles the lungs. I had no desire to offend my hosts, but when I was directly asked if the air quality in New York was any better, I opined that New York smelled like Switzerland compared to Beijing. When my hosts looked at me skeptically, I softened the criticism, adding that Beijing's air quality compared favorably to Elizabeth, New Jersey's, circa 1973. That seemed to satisfy them. At the very least it confounded them enough to change the subject.
(A confession: I'll never be a diplomat. I learned this only while reading my new favorite paper, China Daily. A columnist called Hong Liang was explaining the fine art of how to answer a delicate question: "I always resort to a tactic I learned from my sources in the bureaucracy," Hong wrote. "Talk a lot of nonsense that would wear out all but offend none.")
Wear out all ... offend none ... Genius!
Food started to come, arriving in great platters. Wine followed. It was a 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon with which I was unfamiliar: Great Wall Red. The first sip was something less than ethereal, but I soon became accustomed to its taste and revisited my glass often. Usually it was to wash down some strange bit of meat my friends kept spinning in my direction. The boiled chicken that was delivered in bite-sized pieces included the poor fowl's entire head. It looked exactly like the head of the rooster on the Kellogg's Corn Flakes box, with its small boiled beak and raspberry-red crest. No one ate this delicacy, so the chicken's head kept spinning around the table, eyeballing me. It reminded me of the time I watched a cockfight in Thailand. One rooster lost, but was still quite alive when his owner snatched him up. I asked the man what he'd do with the rooster when he got home, expecting him to describe some home-styled veterinary procedure.
"Soup!" he said.
The story got a lot of laughs from my new friends, which emboldened me to bring up an editorial I'd read that morning in China Daily about the proper time of year to eat dog. It's not in summer. Turns out dog, which the authorities have forbidden to be served in Beijing during the Olympics for fear of offending Westerners, is best eaten in the fall and winter, preferably in a stew. Tastes like lamb. I asked the lady to my right if she'd ever tried it.
"Oh no," she answered with a convincing frown. "I've got a lab and a golden retriever. I could never eat dog."
"You keep dogs in Beijing? Don't you worry about them?"
She laughed. "Lots of people have dogs in Beijing, more every year. They're safe. It's in the country you have to worry."
According to Lilly, in rural areas of China, come the fall and winter, you'd better hang onto your leashes and keep close eye on your pets. Then she related the story of the family in a housing complex who returned from an evening out to find their Rottweiler gone and blood all over the floor. Never saw it again, though they successfully sued their neighbors and got some sort of settlement. Even in America, land of the lawsuit, I'd never heard of someone successfully suing his neighbor for eating his dog.
Thursday, Aug. 7
Will the Olympics heal Federer's wounds?
BEIJING -- Photographers screamed, girls squealed, but Roger Federer, as always, remained the personification of Swiss cool. Olympic organizers today assigned the world's No. 1 player (Spain's Rafael Nadal takes over the crown on Aug. 18) to Press Conference Room No. 4 at the Main Press Center, a room not exactly fit for a tennis king. Though Federer is arguably the most famous non-Chinese athlete at the Games, Olympic officials strangely designated him to the equivalent of an outside court at Wimbledon. The room was as tight as his recent match with Nadal at Wimbledon.
The 12-time Grand Slam singles winner, who will play Russia's Dmitry Tursunov in the first round of the Olympic tournament on Sunday, refused to serve and volley with the press on questions of pollution and politics ("I know the issues but there was never a question about taking part in an Olympic Games," he said), but spoke about losing his top ranking to Nadal, who is seeded second and opens with Italy's Potito Starace.
"If I want No. 1 back, I have to play rock solid, and that means winning many tournaments," Federer said. "The last couple of weeks I lost matches I should not have."
Plenty of tennis players give lip service to the Olympics -- a bonanza to market their brand globally -- but Federer's lust for gold seems genuine. As a boy, he watched countrymate Marc Rosset win at the Barcelona Games in 1992 and has consistently spoken of Beijing as the most important tournament he will play this year. Federer will carry the flag for Switzerland in Friday's opening ceremony -- the same day he turns 27.
"[Winning] would mean as much to me as a Wimbledon victory," Federer said.
Someone asked Federer to compare his Olympic experience eight years ago in Sydney (where he met his girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec) to Athens (where he carried the flag for Switzerland). The man is smooth.
"Well, we've been together for eight years," Federer said, smiling. "The flag was only for 10 minutes. So I'll pick 2000 as better."
Tobogganing down the Wall
BEIJING -- A 20-minute cab ride away from the monolith city-within-a-city that is the Main Press Center lies an oasis of metropolitan greenery known as Chaoyang Park, or "Rising Sun" Park. Orange dragonflies buzz about and white poplars sway in the breeze, which wafts in occasionally even in the 92-degree, muggy heat.
Within the park, Speedo has commandeered the Jintai Art Museum and installed a curious exhibit of swimsuits through the ages. Spread out through the circular upper level of the gallery is an array of Speedo-sponsored athletes, each entertaining questions from a select group of reporters, while marquee names Michael Phelps and Dara Torres handle bigger mobs in the atrium.
Divers Laura Wilkinson and Thomas Finchum revealed that they did their big sightseeing Wednesday at the Great Wall.
"It was something I'd seen in pictures everywhere and it was great to actually be there," said Finchum, 19. "Then to toboggan down the Wall, that was crazy. I didn't know you could do that but we all enjoyed it."
Slice of Americana up and running
BEIJING -- So it's not Kress or the Villa in Hollywood, but one of the hottest spots in town is Team USA's High Performance Training Center at Beijing Normal University, a facility about 20 minutes of a looping cab ride away from the Water Cube (the Games' swimming venue). It's as close to a red velvet rope as you can get for the polo-and-khakis set, with an escort to a security screening checkpoint and an awaiting shuttle to take you two minutes around the corner to another complex. That's followed by a third greeter to lead you to that most American of sights -- a multihued 24 Hour Fitness gym replete with elliptical and resistance machines.
Beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh, co-queen of the game with partner Misty May-Treanor, made the trip for her first time Wednesday, tucking her 6-foot-3 frame into the shuttle and emerging with a smile intact. She and USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski were on hand for the gym's ribbon cutting.
After a 20-minute delay (Coach K explained that the men's team just got into town from Shanghai and they all wanted to go to the Olympic Village), during which a karaoke version of That's What Friends Are For played on a loop, the center was dedicated, photos were taken and interviews were conducted. The only thing missing? The sweat-smell of a fully engaged and slightly under air-conditioned gym. Of the formalities, Walsh joked, "I think I'd feel a little more comfortable in a bikini right now!" (Soon, soon.)
Wednesday, Aug. 6
A subway crash course; smile for the camera
BEIJING -- Imagine you are riding the Boston subway to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game, and on the train's video screens portray the basics of baseball, educating spectators on the rules and fundamentals of the game so that they might better enjoy their experience. And this is an entirely visual experience, soundless so as not to fight the inherent rattling and screeching.
This is what I was thinking on Wednesday morning as I rode the crazy-crowded Beijing subway system to visit Tiananmen Square (figuring once the Games begin I might not get another chance). The cars were outfitted with wall-mounted video screens explaining the basics of Olympic sports. On my trip, I got lessons in soccer (which I didn't need, although they did a nice job with offside) and table tennis (which I did).
That experience was not nearly as strange as what took place in Tiananmen Square itself. As I was standing with a small group of SI colleagues, a young Chinese woman approached and asked if she could have her picture taken with me. I am told that for some people here (especially those who might be visiting from outside Beijing), interaction with foreigners is rare enough that the occasion is worth capturing with a picture, and my pallor and freckles leave me on the obvious end of the foreigner scale.
That, or she mistook me for Christian Bale, which is somewhat less likely.
Longing for the kinder, gentler Beijing
BEIJING -- After a half-dozen trips to Beijing, I've come to mark each visit by how I sweated off jet lag upon arrival. A pattern emerges, and it tells the tale of a city transformed in less than two decades. Transformed -- and disfigured.
In 1990, I rented a black Flying Pigeon bicycle from the bellhop at my hotel and, slipping into the school of similarly creaky one-speeds, sailed past the Gate of Heavenly Peace and into the city's backstreets. In the capital of a country only just thrown open by Deng Xiaopeng, cars still deferred to two-wheelers.
A dozen years later, I could swing by the basketball courts of Dongdan to play pick-up with guys who had as keen a sense of streetball style as any of their Stateside counterparts. I'm not the least bit surprised to learn that, today, Yao Ming's is only the fifth or sixth most popular NBA jersey in China.
And this week? After a glance outside at the traffic and the haze, I confined myself to the treadmill in the hotel fitness center.
I checked into that hotel, by the way, with an acute sense of false pretenses, for it's called the Foreign Experts Hotel. Generic names are all the rage in bei jing, which is Mandarin for "north capital": The Foreign Experts Hotel sits hard by the Fourth Ring Road, and I will encamp for most of these Games at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium. Free-market principles may have taken hold here, but apparently no one has yet introduced the concept of naming rights.
Even from that adjacent Fourth Ring Road, the signature latticework of the adjacent National Stadium, a.k.a. the Bird's Nest, remained shrouded yesterday morning by the soupy air. In clearer, nearer focus was the not-yet-completely-occupied skyscraper informally called "the Torch Building." Its nickname comes from the architectural pompadour on top, but every bit as arresting are the huge Jumbotron screens that loop Olympic-themed video shorts and are likely to cause traffic accidents.
This northern fringe of the city, home to the main cluster of venues and the Olympic Green, is new Beijing. Old Beijing, with its walled courtyard homes and communal living, is vanishing. World-weary Beijingers joke that chai na is a Chinglish pun that sounds like China, and in Mandarin means "demolish that."
A visitor, upon hearing that the air here can reach four times the level of particulate concentration considered safe, might be moved to wonder if the local fans' idiom for "Let's go!" isn't ill-chosen. It translates literally to "Add oil!"
I understand that it's not the place for a Westerner to begrudge another nation simply because it has come to progress and creature comforts later than mine did. But if there's a melancholy tone to dispatches like this one -- a report that, a couple of days before the opening ceremony, organizers surely hoped would be more anticipatory and celebratory -- it's because I remember Beijing when it was a regal place with a lollygagging pace that wore its past proudly.
How to placate spoilsports in the press like me? Blocking access to Web sites, as organizers have done at the Main Press Center, is not a good start.
Better to put us up in the Foreign Experts Hotel, in the hope that flattery will get you somewhere.