By Cindy Millen
TOLEDO, Ohio, October 8. NO, the air was fine.
Yes, the milk did taste funny.
Yes, the Olympic Village was Disneyland perfect.
No, we did not drink or even brush our teeth with the tap water (and were provided four bottles of distilled water each night in our rooms.)
No, they had "western" toilets (with seats) in the Village.
Well, I only saw one dog (in a village near the airport) and one cat (at the Summer Palace).
And yes, the "Cube," as the National Aquatic Center was nicknamed, is a technological and architectural marvel.
No one does it like the Chinese (much to the chagrin of the British officials there who constantly heard, "And what are the Brits going to do in 2012?").
Graced by lavender mountains clearly seen on the western horizon and a clear blue sky, the flower-lined boulevards and tree-bordered walkways of the Olympic Village were freshly scrubbed each morning by 6 a.m. Hundreds of nearly invisible workers pruned rose bushes, re-planted individual spouts of grass (not seeds or sod, mind you, but individual plants of grass) in weed-free lawns, swept each walk, opened each door and greeted each passerby with a broad smile and a well-practiced "Good Morning!" The hospitality of the Chinese was as warm as the Paralympic Torch which glowed brightly atop the Bird Cage (the stadium) and even more personally heartfelt.
"It is my great pleasure and proud duty to make everything perfect for you in Beijing."
As she squeezed my hand and smiled, the 19-year-old college student distributing officials' uniforms was not just repeating a shallow mantra.
"I am so glad that you can see China. I would like to see your beautiful country."
This was personal for her, and for the hundreds of other volunteers.
"It is my privilege to help you," was regularly heard after someone was thanked for providing a service. Then, more often than not, in a quiet moment, it was followed by, "Do you like China?" "Is the air fine with you?" "What will you tell Americans about us?"
The opinions of Westerners, particularly Americans, were sought out much more than others, especially by the dozens of college students who had volunteered at the Cube. As days went by and familiarity at the pool set in, conversation became more relaxed and interesting. They became our new sons and daughters, and we became their sources of desired information.
"You have five children! Wow! I want to have more than one, that's for sure."
My new friend spoke with a perfect Midwestern American accent which surprised me. Each day, he sought me out to try his American English on me.
"I watch MTV, CNN and Fox News—-fair and balanced! Do you like Obama? Do you like Japan now? Our people were treated badly by them, but this is a new generation. They're OK. No problem. Do you know the University of Michigan? I would like to go to grad school there. And then I'll come back to China."
Ann Arbor is only 40 minutes north of us, I shared, and my family is originally from Michigan. With his great accent, he would fit right in there. Could he say "Go Blue?" "No problem!" he beamed.
"We (motioning to the other college kids in the room) all are only children. We have only parents and grandparents. I am a lucky one because my mother had one sister. They were from the country and it didn't matter as much then. So I have an aunt and a cousin. I really wanted a little brother or sister to take care of."
When asked if anyone can have more than one child, he noted, "Only if you pay a lot of money to the government, but I will do that. No problem."
Even if we had not been advised by the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) to avoid political discussions, my Midwest upbringing (my Aunt Bee's admonishment still rings in my ears to this day: "There is never an excuse to be rude.") would have prohibited any question or statement which would have made my host uncomfortable. He read my mind and answered the question found there.
"I understand why the government has this policy, but I would like to have more than one child. Everyone wants a boy, and so many have abortions if it is a girl. And then the child is spoiled by both sets of grandparents and the parents, but also filled with the pressure and expectations of the entire family. It is not normal."
Indeed, in the stands immediately behind us on the pool deck, we would consistently see groups of several adults hovering over one child. When we saw a pair of identical twin boys, it was obvious that they were minor celebrities in the crowd.
Later, in a conversation about fashion, one of the young ladies in the group commented,
"There is more plastic surgery now. Women are getting their eyes "rounded" like Westerners. That is considered beautiful." Another piped in. "And some get their hair colored and colored contacts. Light colored eyes are so beautiful."
My retort that the Chinese women, especially the silk-dressed models who assisted in the medal ceremonies, were very beautiful fell upon deaf ears. Indeed, we had seen many Chinese women with "rounded" eyes, curly perms and streaks of auburn or lighter shades in their hair. And in the changing room, my freckled skin had been touched and blue-green eyes had been noted several times by the Chinese swim officials.
We, the few non-Chinese on the pool deck, were always pointed out and showered with their enthusiastic waves and greetings. One tow-headed toddler, however, a son of one of the Norwegian contingent, was brought to tears by the never-ending attention of the crowds seeking to take his photograph. Mom and son eventually withdrew from public viewing
"Did you have a moon cake?"
Yes, the traditional pastry for the Mid-Autumn Festival was delicious.
"We like your chocolate better."
My Chinese-American friend back home had correctly suggested that we bring two things to share in the traditional gift-giving practiced here: Chocolate and American T-shirts.
"I don't know why we don't have chocolate like this here."
The slim, dark bars made by Lindt and Hershey were either quickly gobbled up or packed away to share at home.
"Our government does what is best for us. They really do care about us and take care of us. Other things are more important for us right now."
Americans feel the opposite, I laughed. We innately mistrust anyone who has any authority over us, especially our government.
"Well, you know that Tibet is not portrayed correctly. It is only a few people in Tibet making a lot of trouble for everyone. Most people in Tibet are very happy. The others are just troublemakers. The government is doing the best it can with so many people."
Yes, every nation has problems, I quietly commented. And the news media can sometimes distort facts.
On another day, noticing the cross I always wore, another young friend commented, "We are not very religious here."
When asked what holidays are celebrated, the group gathered around and collectively listed them.
"Spring Festival, Summer holidays from school, Mid-Autumn Festival, October Days to honor when our country was founded, and Christmas."
I asked how Christmas is celebrated.
"Gifts. Families getting together. Food."
We agreed that it was a wonderful holiday.
Each day, our college students eagerly gave us travel information, directions to various sites, hints as to the best shops to visit, tips on bartering and locations of the local favorite restaurants. In between sessions, we would watch Sumo wrestling from Japan or soap operas in Chinese (which, like American soap operas, could be followed days at a time without even knowing the language.) We looked forward to seeing each other every morning and evening.
At the end of the two weeks, I gave the Wolverine-hopeful a present: One of the well-known I (HEART) NY T-shirts I had brought over. It was promptly shown to the entire group to ooohs and aaahs.
"This is very cool! I will wear it tomorrow! Thank you so much!"
Well, I hope you visit there sometime, I replied as we began our round of hugs through the room.
"Yes! Rockefeller Center!! Statue of Liberty!!"
He gave me his e-mail address and I promised to write.
"Please tell Americans that we like them and they would be very welcome to visit us. No problem! They are very cool! Go Blue!"
I told them that they were very cool as well and promised I would pass the word along.
Cindy Millen is a USA Swimming official and an International Paralympic Swimming official who was one of two Americans who officiated at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. She is a painter, children's books author (C.M. Millen) and office manager for the Greater Toledo Aquatic Club.