The posters commanding BUILD A NEW BEIJING TO WELCOME A NEW OLYMPICS soon appeared in the lanes; then, one spring night in 2008, an unseen specter daubed the courtyard's gray brick walls with the ghostly white character that means raze. But a year later the lanes still stand.
The redevelopment of our neighborhood has been tabled for lack of funds. At her courtyard home, as her father's pet pigeons flap in circles overhead, my former student Little Liu, now 12, teaches me the Chinese term for "global economic crisis."
Little Liu once anticipated the Beijing Games the way I used to Christmas Eve, but now the event feels very far away to her. "The Olympics showed foreign countries that China is a friendly and developed country," she says in English. "But now it's over." She shrugs and switches to Mandarin. "All the activities about the Olympics at school have been replaced by ones about psychological health, like 'Don't snatch purses' or 'Don't cheat people online.' And the posters with the Olympics slogan One World, One Dream were changed to ones praising our neighborhood's 800-year-old history and culture."
I cannot confirm these replacements firsthand; fears that foreigners might carry swine flu meant that I was forbidden to enter the grounds of the school where I taught for three years.
Architecture in Beijing is as recyclable as my water bottle. Former Buddhist temples house schools; old air-raid shelters become underground museums; a neighborhood partly demolished to make way for a straightened road gets bulldozed again to add a subway. And so it follows that at the Olympic Green, the National Aquatics Center—the Water Cube—is as much store as swimming pool.
The warmup pool at the Cube recently opened a few days a week for people who pass a health check and can present a "deep water certificate." For 50 yuan those people can swim for up to two hours. It costs only 30 yuan, however, to not swim, to browse counters stocked with Water Cube watches, Water Cube water wings and Water Cube perfume and rice wine (which smell indistinguishable).
Across the street, inside the National Indoor Stadium, site of the gymnastics events, a ticket buys access to a darkened, empty arena, bereft of decorations save for a concourse mural depicting Olympic history that concludes with painted visages of the Williams sisters and a torch-bearing Yao Ming. A dozen miles to the southwest the Olympic basketball arena, constructed for the Games and now licensed to NBA China, sits largely unused.
Eight of the Games' 31 venues were temporary: The former baseball diamond is now a mall construction site, and mounds of scrap metal occupy the grounds that hosted field hockey and archery. An hour outside town, visitors can learn to kayak at the site of Olympic rowing and canoeing. The attraction I arrived eager to try—the whitewater course—sits dry, however. I made do with walking its floor, wishing I had a skateboard.
Still seen on occasion around Beijing: the blue-and-white polo shirts worn by the 100,000 volunteers who staffed the Olympics. In my neighborhood, Li Shuqin often wears hers as she sells fans, socks and other sundries from her flatbed tricycle—parked at the corner of Prolong Life and Tea lanes, beneath painted characters that spell ONE WORLD, ONE DREAM over a slogan from a preceding era: NEVER FORGET CLASS STRUGGLE!
"I volunteered every day for three weeks out at the Bird's Nest," Li says in Mandarin. "It made me feel connected to the event, to the world." Her contribution, Li admits, was limited. "Mostly I just smiled at passersby."