Photo by Sara Faith Alterman.
BEIJING — On television images and in photographs, Beijing looks ready for the surge of athletes, government officials, VIPs, and gazillion visitors who are about to cover this city like white on Olympic rice. The international media has fractiously scrutinized China’s capital for the past few years, allowing the Western world to look over Beijing’s shoulders as the city prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. We watched as it put the finishing touches on state-of-the-art athletic facilities; fought air pollution; and equipped taxi drivers, hospitality workers, and public servants with the English skills they’ll need to communicate with the thousands of foreigners who will be flitting about Beijing during the month of August.
Except . . . not.
I’ve been living in Beijing since the beginning of July, covering the mad month-long preamble to the Games. My experience has been the polar opposite of what I had read and seen in news stories about how the Chinese are ready and willing to accommodate the Olympic athletes, coaches, spectators, media, and volunteers. How silly of me. I should have known that a country that vehemently denied SARS and tried to poison our pets and children might be a little less than forthcoming about the asinine, algae-scented shitshow that is the 2008 Olympics.
Oh, Beijing. You’re like the ex-boyfriend that I wanted so badly to love, but just couldn’t bring myself to face in the morning, once the booze wore off. I wish I could break it off with you (and go home), but I’ve vowed to stick it out, so I’m trying to make the best of it. Really, I am. But you lied to me, Beijing, and that hurts. It hurts my heart, and it hurts my pride. And it hurts my tender lungs and sinus cavities, too.
I have literally seen the sun once since I have been here, and not because it’s been rainy, or cloudy, or because I sleep off my one-dollar-draft-beer hangovers until the following evening. The gray haze that hangs over the city like a burdened conscience is the result of years of pollutants being wafted to the sky, tits to the wind. Hacking up black mystery gunk has become an accepted part of my daily routine, and I’ve grown to actually find a cathartic satisfaction in hawking a chunky loog — though I’m not sure that Olympic athletes will find that as hilarious as I do. How any of the outdoor competitors will complete their events without developing a nasty case of emphysema in the process I’m not entirely sure. I can’t even walk three blocks without sputtering and wheezing like a dying engine.
Speaking of hacks, when I don’t want to walk, I hail a cab, which, in and of itself, is a choose-your-own-adventure tour de force of spectacular proportions. I’m not enough of an Americaphile asshole to have expected taxi drivers in China to speak my language, but I did, at the very least, expect them to know the geographic layout of their own city. Taxi rides, as it turns out, are total crapshoots. More often than not, I find myself desperately trying to summon the Mandarin words for “Take a left at the giant Mao statue,” or “No, sir, the Mexican/Mediterranean karaoke bar is on the Fourth Ring Road,” or even, “Please look out for the bicycle that’s about to wrap itself around your — OOF! — fender,” before resorting to a madcap routine of pointing and gesturing that usually only gets me within a 17-block radius of where I’m trying to go. This is after I’ve thrust into the hands of the confounded driver the address and directions, written in Chinese characters.
I suppose I’ve been spoiled by Boston cabbies, who know the city and its surrounding urban arteries like the back of their tobacco-stained hands, who could navigate the length of the McGrath/O’Brien Highway without taking their eyes off their newspaper. I’ve learned to choose my Beijing cabbie based on their license number: the six-digit key to a driver’s years of experience and an unofficial indicator of their street savvy. License numbers 150100 and below generally guarantee that the driver has ventured outside of his vehicular comfort zone at least once or twice. Higher than that, and it’s a good chance that the man or woman steering your rickety yellow vehicle down the highway got his or her driver’s license within the past few months — and quite possibly out of a cereal box.