National ‘Face’ & Local Sensitivity (Part 1): Not fit to print in Tianjin

Below is the un-censored version of a story that I wrote for the Sept. issue of a local expat magazine about our Opening Ceremony experience. It was originally rejected by the Chinese editor, who deemed it “too negative and too sensitive.” The red text is what I deleted or completely reworked to make it patriotically palatable (other stuff was edited out for space).

There are two editors, and in this case the (apologetic) American editor passed on the Chinese editor’s objections to me, which were mostly about offending patriotic sensitivities (paints a “too negative” image of China) and less about being politically careful. The American editor suggested several edits, including that I “really butter it up” regarding people not singing the national anthem and not cheering as much as I thought they would (it was “too negative” to mention these things). In ‘protest’ (for fun), I submitted this over-the-top rewrite, which they printed:

As the flag was raised the entire park immediately stood up for the national anthem. At first I was surprised that most people chose to stand respectfully rather than sing. But in hindsight, the piqued crowd was more likely struck speechless by the sight of their flag and national anthem being honoured before the entire world.

In the local atmosphere surrounding the Olympics, China’s “image” in the eyes of foreigners was (and still is) an intense concern. The same week that the article was rejected I received an hour’s worth of similar complaints about my previous articles from one of my teachers.

I’m posting this to give you a local snap shot of what can be considered offensive in Tianjin these days. It’s an unavoidable part of our China experience; people’s (hyper)sensitivity — especially our friends, neighbours, and teachers — is something we’ve had to navigate carefully during the Olympic summer.

Some caveats: While a lot of people here have similar feelings to this particular editor, there are also lots of other magazines in China publishing deliberately edgy material. There’s plenty of variety of opinion in China. Also, the degree of censorship varies from city to city and is largely determined by the particular tolerance level of local authorities. Tianjin is more conservative than many other areas.

Just skim down to the red text to see the naughty bits.

Watching the Opening Ceremony… with a few thousand Tianjiners!

It’s the sticky, steamy, most auspicious night of 08-08-08, and six foreigners from four different continents have decided to join thousands of Tianjiners in Tianjin’s “Milky Way Square” (银河广场 / yínhé guǎngchǎng) on Yǒuyì Lù (友谊路). We’re convinced there’s only one way for non-ticket holders to truly experience the most anticipated Opening Ceremony in the history of the Olympics: immersed in a crowd of excited Mainlanders. We unfold our 8 kuài folding stools, let some friendly fellow spectators take our picture, and settle in for a night we won’t soon forget.

You can watch a video of the crowds’ reactions to different segments of the Ceremony online at www.YouTube.com/BigNoseForeigner. Neither the video nor these accompanying photos do the scene justice. They only show part of one crowd, but because of how the park is designed there were actually three large separate crowds around the double-sided screen.

Spectating the Spectators
The last time I was with this many outdoor spectators I was on the beach in the next Olympic city: Vancouver, Canada. It was the Symphony of Fire, an annual international musical fireworks competition. But in Vancouver, large dense crowds often mean booze, marijuana, and some inevitable rowdiness. These few thousand Tianjiners behaved much more civilized than the Vancouverites; they were a giant Sunday school class by comparison. But it was still lots of fun watching them watch the dazzling and inexorably interminable Ode to Chinese Civilization-minus-the-20th-century that was the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony (开幕式 / kāimùshì).

The crowd applauded when the honour guard took the Chinese flag from the 56 minority children and marched smartly toward flag pole. As the flag was raised the entire park stood up for the national anthem like I expected, but hardly anyone sang! I thought they’d be going nuts. In Vancouver – where our meager patriotism mostly involves affirming that we’re not Americans – people would have been hollering O Canada half-drunk by that time. Maybe the outdoor sound system was too low, or maybe it was just too hot and humid. At that moment Tianjiners were piqued but respectfully restrained.

People ooh’d and aah’d at the artistic performances, yelling “hǎo!” (好 / good!) at especially impressive parts. Repeated shots of former president Jiāng Zémín (江泽民) and his wife Wáng Yěpíng (王冶坪) provoked a curious response from the crowd, as if they were laughing lightly in a good-natured sort of way.

Parade of Nations
The more exotic costumes and ethnicities provoked responses from the crowd. Particularly dark Africans and particularly fat women would cause scattered giggling or comments from a minority of the spectators near us. When one of the African flag carriers smiled big into the camera a guy sitting next to me said, “Wow, look at his teeth!” Close-ups of particularly glamourous female athletes got a reaction every time from some in the crowd. George Bush was given plenty of screen time, and he seemed to get a mild but positive response. Of the individual foreigners the biggest cheers probably went to LeBron James of the U.S. men’s basketball “Redeem Team.”

Taiwan’s athletes received big cheers from the crowd. Japan didn’t get booed much – just a handful of loud-mouths who were joking around, and they got disapproving looks from their neighbours.

Team Canada came out, and who did they have with them but the ubiquitous Dà Shān (大山) – “the most famous foreigner in China”! As a Canadian language student in China I have a special, complicated relationship with Dà Shān, whom I’ve never met. During my first few months of language study in Tianjin, it seemed every other sidewalk conversation went basically like this:

“Where are you from?”
“Canada.”
“Oh, Canada! Dà Shān’s country! Do you know who Dà Shān is?”
“Yes.”
“Your Mandarin isn’t as good as his.”

I took another couple months before I learned to say, “Yeah, and I hear his Mandarin is probably even better than your’s!” Dà Shān is the ultimate language and culture acquisition role model, with his flawless Mandarin and mastery of traditional Chinese stand-up comedy. As annoying as it is to be constantly compared to his virtually unattainable standard, he got a good rise out of our crowd that night, and I was proud to have him representing the Canucks.

Team China
By the time China’s athletes finally appeared we’d been there sweating for about three hours and the crowd had thinned a little. People’s newspaper seats were baked with sweat into the pavement. But when Yao Ming carried in the Chinese flag, flanked by a pint-sized earthquake hero from Sichuan, the fatigued but happy crowd loved it. People started cheering, clapping, waving flags and chanting “Zhōngguó jiāyóu!” (中国加油 / Go China!). People also loved seeing wider shots inside the Bird’s Nest that showed how big the Chinese team was.

During the final hour the cheering and enthusiasm really picked up, but only in pockets and for a minute or so at a time. I don’t know why but our self-appointed cheerleaders couldn’t get the whole crowd into it all at once. A couple times a small group around the TV crew would cheer with wild abandon while they were being filmed, but in general I was surprised that the crowd wasn’t more enthusiastic than they were. I assume it was simply a matter of heat and fatigue – four hours is a long time! – although neither could stop people from celebrating as the cauldron was lit in epic fashion.

Reading the Chinese Tea Leaves

The Ceremony is a key part of the carefully crafted self-portrait that China’s rulers have anxiously placed before their own people and the people of the world (two very different audiences in some respects). Mainlanders, for their part, are seeing their nation being redefined. For better or for worse, China’s methods of trying to craft this gilded self-image for the rest of the world are making a bigger impression on the rest of the world than the projected image itself. There’s no doubt that the 2008 Opening Ceremony was intended to send some messages. I’m not qualified to interpret these particular tea leaves, but I still have some questions: There was plenty of Confucius, but where was Chairman Mao? For that matter, where were the 19th and 20th centuries? Why were the lyrics to “Song to the Motherland” (歌唱祖国), which were mimed by nine-year-old Lín Miàokě (林妙可), rewritten? And what do those edits mean? Some say the giant painting drawn throughout the performance makes oblique, politically-coded references to Mao, but the nations of the world colourfully trampled all over that painting.

I don’t know what it all was intended to mean, what the average Mainlander understands it to mean, or what it really does mean in the big picture. But I do know it meant a lot to a lot of people, and I appreciate our gracious Tianjin hosts for allowing us to experience it with them. Thanks Tianjin for a memorable night!

(P.S. — Expat magazines in third-tier Chinese cities are a good opportunity for nonprofessional writers to get some practice because the standards are relatively low. I use it as a no-pressure way to work on a style of writing that I’m not accustomed to, and practice oral Chinese (in the interviews). )

[Photo Gallery:] China’s Olympics, Our Experience

This photo gallery covers everything from the Tianjin Torch Relay to the Closing Ceremony, but it’s really only one slice of our Olympic experience. A fuller picture should include Tianjin’s massive urban face lift, transformation, and disruption (links go to related blog posts and photo galleries): propaganda slogans everywhere, the campaigns to change public behaviour, street markets and vendors cleared off and our favourite lunch windows being forced to temporarily close, roads paved, buildings painted, fake roofs constructed, ubiquitous migrant worker camps, homes bulldozed and whole blocks of residents relocated, parks and sidewalks getting torn up and replanted, the pollution, and the patriotism and nationalism. And, of course, the Fuwas.

The 2008 Olympics, of course, were about much more than sports, and we wrote on some of that, too:

This gallery covers, in order: the Tianjin Torch Relay, soccer matches in Tianjin, the Opening Ceremony, a day running around Olympic Beijing, watching matches on the big screen in the park, and the Closing Ceremony. Here’re the related blog posts:

Scroll down to read and write comments!

Click here to see all our Olympics-related posts.
August 2008

Watching the Closing Ceremony at Tianjin’s Milky Way Plaza

We needed closure. We returned to Tianjin’s “Milky Way Plaza” (银河广场 / yínhé guǎngchǎng) for the Closing Ceremonies. The Olympics was fun but finally over; maybe now China would started getting back to “normal.”

 Watching the Closing Ceremony at Tianjins Milky Way Plaza

The crowd was larger than it was for the Olympic matches shown nightly on the big screen, but smaller and less keyed up than at the Opening Ceremony. We were a slightly bigger group of foreigners this time, plus we had Chinese flag, so we attracted more attention than last time. We didn’t take any of these photos. Click them to see them big size.

Getting famous
Local media was running around filming and interviewing people. I think our flag is what really drew them over. They asked Greg, the only blond one in our group, some standard questions about his impressions of China and Olympics. The thing is, he’s starting his first semester of Chinese next week and he’d only just arrived in town a few days ago for orientation. So he couldn’t do the interview in Chinese and hadn’t seen any of the Olympics. But that didn’t faze him (he’s a smooth cucumber); he gave them the stock answers to their stock questions (city’s beautiful, the people are wonderful, the Olympics impressive, etc.). The reporter either went away happy, or left asking himself a very important question (“Why do foreigners always feel they need to give us polite, stock answers?”) Before the Ceremony a handful of people came by to take our photo. Some had fancy cameras but they didn’t look like media types.

 Watching the Closing Ceremony at Tianjins Milky Way Plaza

Afterward we all posed behind the flag for our own photos, and that’s when people really started taking pictures. Grandparents and parents would send their kids to run and pose with us and the flag. It was cute, funny, and friendly. People were nice about it. This few seconds of video shows Greg getting interviewed and gives you a sense of the crowd that night:

 Watching the Closing Ceremony at Tianjins Milky Way Plaza  Watching the Closing Ceremony at Tianjins Milky Way Plaza

The Closing Ceremony… what was all that about?
When London started their 8 minutes with a video intro and we started pointing out all the cultural allusions, that’s when I suddenly realized I hadn’t understood anything from the preceding hour or so. Some of the satirical interpretations from the Chinese internet are pretty funny (see especially Wu Yan’s Why did I like the closing ceremony better?), but I have no idea what it was supposed to mean.

 Watching the Closing Ceremony at Tianjins Milky Way Plaza  Watching the Closing Ceremony at Tianjins Milky Way Plaza

So I think this, along with our Olympics photo gallery, is finally the end of our Olympic stuff. It was fun and interesting, but it’ll be nice to talk about something else!

Photos & Stories from a day in Olympic Beijing

 Photos & Stories from a day in Olympic BeijingWe took the super-fast train to Beijing (30 minutes) yesterday to run around and see as much Olympic stuff as we could. Here are some photos. Click them to see bigger sizes.

Seeing Beijing was fun, getting there was convenient, and meeting Olympic athletes was awesome, but honestly most of the Olympic stuff was disappointing. It’s all big and grand and everything, but lacking in the tourist-friendly department (and conspicuously lacking in tourists). It’s like it wasn’t designed with regular people using it in mind; it just needs to look good on TV.
 Photos & Stories from a day in Olympic Beijing  Photos & Stories from a day in Olympic Beijing
The volunteers were cute though. Full points to them for enthusiasm and staying power.

(not so) Tourist Friendly
Sorry, but that’s how it is.
 Photos & Stories from a day in Olympic Beijing
The Olympic Green is supposed to be Olympic tourist central, but no one, including us, can figure out how to actually get in. Even the volunteers at the information booths by the main security checkpoints don’t know. Conclusion: the people in charge don’t want us to get in.

I thought the Olympic areas would be crowded, but the long, wide, tree-lined boulevard leading toward the stadiums was like a desert: no shops, snack stalls, or displays (other than flowers and some weird jello-block things), and just a token sprinkling of people. This is as close as we got to the famous stadiums without game tickets or day passes to the Olympic Green:
 Photos & Stories from a day in Olympic Beijing
On this sidewalk you could buy super-expensive event tickets from scalpers (standard price was 10x the printed price) and bootleg (China-priced) Olympic souvenirs, as opposed to the official souvenirs that sell at American prices. I got two t-shirts for less than $4 — the People’s Olympic souvenirs.

Scalpers
 Photos & Stories from a day in Olympic Beijing
 Photos & Stories from a day in Olympic BeijingLaws work differently in China. Sometimes the laws matter. A lot of laws are just there to make things look good on paper, and sound good in foreign press conferences. For example, you may have heard that China was “cracking down” on ticket scalpers. These photos are from a subway exit walking distance from the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube stadiums. The English portion on the sign says they “should” be punished, and boy do they look scared.

The Olympic sport of Bargaining
Natalie and I convinced Joel and Rob to take a detour into fake-goods central (aka the Silk Market) because my bag was breaking. It’s four or five floors (I forget) crammed full of little booths selling fake name brand everything to tourists. Vendors call out “Gucci! Prada! Hey lady, I give you good price. My friend, you want to buy some bags?” There are no price tags; if bargaining were a sport, this place would host the Olympics and the Chinese would win the gold medal in every category. We heard so many tourists getting slaughtered (宰/zǎi) on prices as we walked by. However, Natalie is an Olympic level bargainer in her own right and experienced at handling the competitive atmosphere of the Silk Market. It was my first time there, so I just followed her cues.

We located the bag I wanted, and then set about the bargaining process. We had another advantage in that Natalie bought the same bag two years ago and paid 150 kuai ($21 USD) for it, so we knew that we didn’t want to pay more than 100 kuai (and hoped we could get it for even less). Given the abundance of tourists willing to get slaughtered, the vendors were throwing out extremely inflated prices.

The starting price for the bag I wanted (at several different booths) ranged from 400-600 kuai ($58-88 USD)!!! Our opening price was 50 kuai ($7.50), along with a spiel about how this was an old bag from three years ago and should now be extremely discounted. It took about thirty minutes…the lowest we could get anyone to go was 100 kuai. It pays to speak Chinese…usually as soon as you start speaking, the price will be slashed by at least 50%, because they know that you won’t be “had” quite as easily as all the tourists.

Natalie and I were wearing these little jelly bracelets in the Olympic colors (a set of five) for which I had paid 2 kuai per set ($.30)…and these attracted the attention of all the young sales ladies. They were (I’m not even exaggerating) literally trying to take the bracelets off of our arms. Apparently those kind of bracelets are a big higher priced in Beijing…8 kuai per one colored bracelet, rather than 2 kuai for a whole set. These came in handy when we finally located a shop keeper that was willing to bargain. Natalie opened (using English) with the spiel about already having the same bag and not wanting to pay more than 50 kuai. Then, in the grand tradition of bargaining, the shopkeeper must protest the impossibility of such a price. Next, I spoke in Chinese…at which point, the lady immediately dropped the price from over 300 kuai down to as she put it, “80 or 100.” I think she meant to say 100, but as soon as that 80 was out of her mouth, we pounced on it…and said “oh, you said 80!” So she couldn’t go back on that price. Even though I’d pretty much already decided to get it at 80, I thought I’d just see if she’d go any lower than that. So I offered 70…which she wouldn’t take. Until, that is, she noticed my beautiful Olympic colored jelly bracelets. She started asking me where I had gotten them and asking me to give one of them to her. At which point, seeing my chance, I said “70 kuai…and I’ll give you the bracelets!” Her eyes widened, and she said “All of them?……DONE!” I took the bracelets off, she rapidly shoved them on her wrist and began admiring them as she wrapped up my bag. She was pretty happy about it all, and was the envy of the other two girls in her booth, who immediately began begging Natalie to give them her bracelets. So, I think we may have just gotten the gold medal in that particular match…a final price of 70 kuai ($10 USD) for my very own fake (but very good quality) Giorgio Armani bag.

 Photos & Stories from a day in Olympic BeijingMeeting Olympic Athletes! (Woowoo!)
While we were off bargaining, Joel and Rob were off stalking Olympic athletes…it was full of athletes when we were there! They must have bused them all in from the Olympic village or something. It was cool to have so many nationalities all in one place. We saw some extremely tall Germans signing autographs…I’m assuming they were basketball players. In one booth, a couple of Swedes were trying on underwear over their underwear, and the shop girl was hiding on the other side of the display dying from laughter.

I (Joel) chatted with a two Canadian athletes and their coaches (totally should have taken a photo!). One American athlete — I forget her name but we’ve seen her face in the news — walked past me and a friend with this frizzled look on her face: “This place is insane!” The sellers were a little aggressive and grabby sometimes, but most were polite and (understandably) in really good moods.

Tiananmen
 Photos & Stories from a day in Olympic Beijing
Tiananmen square was crowded with Olympic displays but Mao’s mausoleum was closed, which I thought was kind of odd, since it’s apparently a super-popular domestic tourist attraction. Didn’t stop people from trying to sell us cheesy Mao trinkets, like wrist watches where his upraised hand tell the time. Totally should have bought one! One day I want to go through the mausoleum to see people’s reactions.

Confucius goes for gold: a cultural angle on Olympic competition

The week before the Olympics, one of my teachers shared this Chinese idiom with me, as a way of illustrating how, for China, it’s either gold or nothing in the Olympics:

成王败寇
“win, king; lose, bandit”
(chéng wáng bài kòu)

medals Confucius goes for gold: a cultural angle on Olympic competitionThe idea apparently had to do with political power struggles, where the winner would have the power to make himself appear legitimate, while the loser becomes the bad guy. My teacher was trying to make the point that in China, generally speaking, coming in second isn’t usually considered something worth celebrating.

The medal standings from the first few days of play remind me of that little conversation in class. The Western countries, where even bronze is celebrated in most cases, the medals are more or less evenly distributed, but the two Confucian-heritage countries are disproportionately top-heavy on golds and silvers (failed golds), with very few bronzes.

medals2 Confucius goes for gold: a cultural angle on Olympic competitionI’m not even going to pretend to be able to draw connections between specific Confucian cultural influences and the disregard for honourable silver and bronze Olympics medals. I brought Confucius into it because that heritage separates the conspicuously gold medal-heavy nations from the others. Confucian heritage not only largely comprises the cultural commonality between China and South Korea, it is also a major cultural border between China and the West. Our Taiwanese boss once described how when he goes to Korea, even thought the language and culture is different, he still feels he’s “in the same system.” He felt much more foreign in Canada.

Canada, of course, not doing so well in the medal rankings, but that’s normal for Canada’s Summer Games performance, owing to the disturbing lack of ice. But we still have Da Shan!

Leader of the free world caught in Olympic cultural miscommunication?

(This is about cultural communication – actually, miscommunication – not politics.)

As most of you know, President Bush, unlike Prime Minister Harper, decided not to snub the Opening Ceremonies. And he’s combined his presence in China as a guest of the State with that of outspoken public critic, going out of his way to try and put public pressure on China’s rulers (his church visit, for example). He discussed his actions in China in an NBC interview that has since been removed from YouTube, but you can watch it here or read the transcript here.

Unfortunately, one apparently popular Chinese way to interpret this kind of behaviour – happily attending the Games while being publicly critical – is exactly the message the President does not want to send.

Western media is starting to notice this interpretation, and this Guardian piece sums is up:

Combining his criticism with a visit to China sends precisely the wrong message to the Chinese people. As they see it, even though Bush hates China – why else would he say such hurtful things? – China is so powerful that he must nevertheless come to the Olympics to honour China’s leadership and people.

I was kind of appalled when I first came across this perspective at Fool’s Mountain, a site dedicated to publishing Chinese views in English. Here it is in the words of an overseas Mainlander:

The cheers and applauses each nation received, especially the loud-mouthed boycotters, from the Chinese audience during the March of the Nations, carried interesting messages. What was the Chinese cheering for when team France, team Germany and team USA marched in (wink, wink, wink)?

I started to feel grateful; maybe China owes the world a “thank you”. Then I had a second thought. The congregation of the world’s Celebrities of Political Power DESPITE the strong forces holding them back demonstrates China’ Soft Power, not the world’s charity or fondness for the Chinese.

Power is the capacity to induce compliance, to make others do your biding. The ability to induce compliance in your competitors, detractors, or even better, your enemies, to make them bend backwards to accommodate your needs, demonstrates your power. Their protest is an index of your power; the louder the protest, the more clearly you know you are prevailing and frustrating them. The violent protests that disrupted the Olympic Torch Relay throughout the Caucasian World (Europe, Australia and North America) never induced “humiliation” in me, nor did the “Genocide Olympics” t-shirts and banners. Instead, they stirred a feeling of invigoration…

Then the Western protest led me to a third thought. The concept of “soft power” is baloney. China did not attract the political celebrities to the Opening Ceremony with its culture, value or ideas. There is no such a thing as “soft power”. The only power recognized in this world comes from Money and Guns… The Olympics are indeed China’s “coming out party”. It celebrates China’s beginning to master the combined power of Money and Guns. The eighty some heads of states bore witness to this achievement at the National Stadium in Beijing on the evening of 08, 08, 2008, with profuse sweating and pungent body odor.

I’m pretty confident that most of the Western athletes and tourists don’t see it this way. And one major caveat: the writer I’ve quoted here grew up in Beijing but now lives and works as a professor in an American university. His perspective is not necessarily that of the average noodle-seller on the street corner. Also, people are finally starting to give more attention to the discrepancy between online Chinese opinion and the opinion of China’s “regular Zhous” (fyi – “zhou” is pronouced “Joe”… little pun there). Not to mention the variety of opinion produced by generational, regional, and economic differences in China.

(Reminder: I don’t want to read anyone’s personal assessment of George Bush in the comments. This is about cross-cultural communication in China.)

Watching the Opening Ceremony with a few thousand Tianjiners!

We watched the dazzling and inexorably interminable Olympics Opening Ceremony (开幕式 / kāi mù shì) with several thousand Tianjiners on a sticky, sweaty night around a giant screen in Tianjin’s “Milky Way Square” (银河广场).

 Watching the Opening Ceremony with a few thousand Tianjiners!

As I predicted, Chairman Mao was nowhere to be seen the entire evening. I don’t think anyone was surprised, but it still seems like an awfully conspicuous omission. Here’s a little video:

It was fun seeing people’s reactions to different things. Everyone stood up for the national anthem, but hardly anyone sang! It was so weird, I thought they’d be going nuts. In Canada – and aside from overreacting to the U.S. we’re hardly all that patriotic in Canada – people would have been hollering the national anthem half-drunk by that time. The sound on the outdoor speakers was too low – maybe that had something to do with it. People ooh’d and aah’d at the artistic performances, yelling “hǎo!” (好) whenever an especially impressive performance was executed. They showed George Bush a few times, and he seemed to get a mild but positive response. These crowd shots show part of only one crowd; because of how the park is designed, there were three separate crowds around the double-sided screen:

 Watching the Opening Ceremony with a few thousand Tianjiners!

Of the countries, Taiwan probably got the biggest cheers. Japan didn’t get booed much – just a few scattered loud-mouths who seemed to be doing it more as a joke, and the one near us got disapproving looks from his neighbours. Of individual foreigners the biggest cheers probably went to LeBron James. Canada came out, and who did they have with them but the ever-present Da Shan (大山 – “the most famous foreigner in China”)! He got a rise out of the crowd; they all know Da Shan (good CBC interview with him here).

You could hear reactions to some of the more exotic costumes and ethnicities from various countries. One of the African athletes smiled big in a close-up and the guy next to me said, “Wow, look at his teeth!” Particularly dark Africans and particularly fat women would cause scattered giggling and comments from a minority of the spectators near us, but it wasn’t too noticeable. The cameramen must have been male, because they kept zooming in on particularly glamourous female athletes, and this got a reaction every time from some of the males in the crowd. The loin-clothed tribal dancer in full body paint from Palau (I think it was Palau, maybe not) didn’t do unnoticed.

 Watching the Opening Ceremony with a few thousand Tianjiners!

By the time China’s athletes finally appeared we’d been there sweating for about three hours and the crowd had thinned a little. People’s newspaper seats were baked with sweat into the pavement. But when Yao Ming carried in the Chinese flag, flanked by a pint-sized earthquake survivor from Sichuan, the fatigued but happy crowd loved it. People started cheering and clapping and chanting “Zhōngguó jiāyóu!” (中国加油 / Go China!) and waving flags – this happened a lot, actually – but only in pockets and for short amounts of time. I don’t know why but they couldn’t get the whole crowd into it at any time during the 4+ hours. A couple times a small group around the TV crew would cheer with wild abandon while they were being filmed. People also loved seeing the bigger shots of the Bird’s Nest that showed how big the Chinese team was. But in general I was surprised that the crowd wasn’t more enthusiastic than they were.

They kept giving screen time to a really old official Chinese couple sitting next to the Premier. The crowd laughed lightly at him and especially his very-grumpy-looking wife. I recognize the man’s face – it’s someone obvious that I should know – but I just can’t recall his name. [It was former president Jiāng Zémín (江泽民), who invented the famously nebulous "Three Represents."]

Here we are, some of the very few foreigners out that night – a TCK (African-raised American), a German, a Canadian, a Yankee, an Aussie, and another American:

 Watching the Opening Ceremony with a few thousand Tianjiners!

We bought $1 Chinese-style folding stools, like what the old guys sit on to fish in the canal, but I opted to stand for most of the 4+ hours because those things aren’t designed with the chiropractic comfort of 6’4″ Canadians in mind. Most people sat on newspaper on the ground (in Tianjin, most people don’t sit directly on outside surfaces like the ground or benches).

Even though it was so long and literally painful, I’m returning to the square tonight to watch the China vs. Canada soccer match (assuming we can’t get cheap tickets from the scalpers hiding out near the hospital a block away from the stadium).

[P.S. -- You can see what they would and wouldn't let me publish about this event in a local expat magazine here: "National ‘Face’ & Local Sensitivity (Part 1): Not fit to print in Tianjin"]