Between the deer-in-headlights taxi drivers and the provincial natives who regard non-Chinese as circus monkeys or museum exhibits, I’m curious to see how Beijing — as the planet’s Olympic host — will react when it is flooded by flummoxed foreigners. For a city that claims to be fully prepared to welcome a spectrum of visitors of every color, creed, and political affiliation, the reception I’ve gotten from the people of Beijing has been borderline primitive. Granted, Beijingers are immensely proud to live in the site of the 2008 Olympics, and the city is covered with topiaries, banners, and paraphernalia to prove it. Still, though, there’s a bizarre dichotomy at play, a love/hate relationship with anything non-Chinese that seems shielded by the government’s desperation to prove to the rest of the world that China is ready for anything, anytime. It’s the same kind of insecure sensibility showcased by a rookie stand-up comedian. And Beijing isn’t funny either.
Will Beijing come through on its promises, transforming overnight into a bilingual, worldly champion of human rights and environmental excellence? Probably not. Still, the sentiment seems genuine, even if the execution can’t stick its landing. And, despite its shortcomings, China is aching for global acceptance, determined to be seen as something above and beyond a punch line or an afterthought, something more than an assembly-line superpower or an educational overachiever. And, for all of my grievances and bitchery, I’m thrilled to be here to witness the process. Mostly.
Sara Faith Alterman can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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